Austin firefighters step up fire mitigation efforts ahead of wildfire season


by JESSICA VESS / KVUE News & Photojournalist ERIN COKER

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Posted on January 20, 2014 at 9:04 AM

Updated Monday, Jan 20 at 10:01 AM

AUSTIN -- Central Texas firefighters are preparing for wildfire season.

In the dry winter wind and the blistering summer heat, danger lurks. It's hidden in the brush of the Austin landscape.

The National Fire Protection Association lists Central Texas as one of the top regions in the country to consistently experience more wildfires each year than any other region. The Texas A&M Forest Service tracks the risk across Texas. Its current map shows that most of the area is under a moderate to high risk.

“In Texas we have two big wildfire seasons. We have a winter season as well as in the dead of heat in summer. Right now you can walk outside. You can feel your skin just start to dry up,” explained Lt. Andre De la Reza of the Austin Fire Department’s Wildfire Mitigation Division.

The Austin Fire Department says it's not a matter of if a fire sparks, but rather when it will spark. It's a danger too many know too well.

Two years ago in Oak Hill, a single ember ignited a days-long firefighting effort. At the time firefighters had just one option: react. They're looking ahead now to take proactive steps, bracing for another disaster.

“We want to be ahead of that game when that game starts,” said Lt. De La Reza.

Firefighters are working to eliminate the danger by eliminating the fuel. They're cutting down vegetation and removing dead debris. The humming of chainsaws echoed through the Balcones Canyon Land Preserve over the past week. Firefighters cleared a 60-foot perimeter near homes in the Jester Estates neighborhood. They created a fuel break designed to stop flames should a fire spark.

“That helps increase your chances of your home being able to survive a wildfire event,” said Lt. De La Reza.

“If a fire starts it's going to be a lower intensity. It's not going to get to grow into a high intensity fire.”

It's an effort that's still in the early stages in Central Texas. The Austin Fire Department didn't create its Wildfire Mitigation Division until after 2011, when fires destroyed hundreds of acres. It was a hard learned lesson.

Although proactive the current measures remain relatively untested in Austin. No fires have sparked in the areas that crews treated over the past two years, but experts say the concept works.

In Bastrop County during the 2011 fires, flames damaged 1,200 homes. The homes were damaged but not destroyed because firefighters say all those homeowners had taken similar precautionary measures in clearing out debris and fuel.

“Homes don't burn down from that flaming front necessarily of a fire, it's the ember shower. It's those embers that are going to fly and going to land in the gutter where there are leaves. They're going to land on a tree that's right above a chimney where it's dropped a bunch of leaves,” said Amanda Ross with the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.

Over the past year Travis county and the City of Austin have devoted more than $100,000 toward a fire prevention plan. The money covers the cost of more equipment for wildfire mitigation. It also helps to get all uniformed firefighters at AFD specialized wild land training.

With that training they'll be ready when the next emergency strikes.