Wildfire concern high for Travis County after winter storm, rain

Around 65% of Travis County homes and about half of Austin homes are at high risk for being affected by wildfires, according to local fire officials.

Justice Jones, wildfire mitigation officer at the Austin Fire Department, said they recently completed one of the most rigorous risk analyses of anywhere in the country.

The efforts were essentially jumpstarted by the series of wildfires that occurred over Labor Day weekend in 2011 that destroyed thousands of acres and more than 1,600 homes.

Fast forward to 2021, and a destructive February winter storm left behind dry vegetation.

"The winter storm caused leaves to fall from the trees that were damaged by frost, that leaf litter then creates more of a continuous bed of fuel on the forest floor," said Jones. "So we look at all of these factors and how they interrelate and work to tie them back to the impacts of a wildfire."

Additionally,  a rainy season in Austin has contributed to more vegetation which will eventually dry out as well.

"We have more vegetation than we’ve had for decades and that will mean that if we do have a major fire season it's going to be more severe than we’ve had in a long time," said Will Boettner, wildfire specialist for the Travis County Marshal's Office.

Couple this year's weather with major population growth, and those monitoring wildfire risk have a lot on their hands.

"With 200 people a day moving to Austin, changes in our climate, and an expansion of our footprint of development across the landscape, now is really a critical time to get ahead of the curve when it comes to preparing for wildfires," said Jones.

Much of that preparation has involved educating homeowners. Boettner encouraged people to look at the defensible zones around their homes: 0-5 feet (critical zone), 5-30 feet (less of a risk), and 30-100 feet (smaller risk).

"A lot of people just don’t understand what parts of their homes are vulnerable," said Boettner. "Most of the home fires in a wildfire are not caused by the flames reaching out and touching the house, they are caused by things like embers floating in the air.

Boettner said on a regular day, embers can travel up to a quarter of a mile. On a windy day, they can travel miles away.

Homeowners can also check their home's risk level via an online map. They can also call their local fire department and receive a free home ignition zone assessment.

The Austin-Travis County Wildfire Coalition has also created a website where homeowners can access important information.

Austin City Council members were briefed on wildfire danger at a meeting on Tuesday. County and city leaders hosted a town hall on Wednesday to help educate the public heading into September.

"It’s clear we have to do more to prepare people for increasingly destructive weather events caused by climate change," said Travis Co. Commissioner Brigid Shea, who helped host the town hall.

Along with educating the community, AFD plans to launch a Wildfire Battalion in October. A special team within the department that will be more intensively trained on fighting wildfires.

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