Experts warn that February’s winter freeze left behind a lot of dead and dried out plants that could go up in smoke during the hotter summer months, increasing the risk for wildfire in the western parts of Travis County.
“Our winter storm definitely left extra dead vegetation on the ground,” said Lt. Adam Griggs of Lake Travis Fire Rescue. “There are areas we mitigated last summer that are peppered with dead trees that are drying out now. It does lend itself to a higher intensity fire because there’s more fuel to burn.”
The last major fire in western Travis County was the Steiner Ranch fire in 2011, which destroyed 23 homes. County Commissioner Ann Howard noted that blaze occurred after a deep freeze earlier in the year left extra fuel for flames in the area.
Griggs said western Travis County faces particular risks for wildfire because it’s an area of “wildland-urban interface,” where a lot of homes and other buildings are mixed with natural wooded spaces.
“If you look at a risk map, the majority of our district is yellow, orange and red. We are the hot spot in the county as far as risk goes,” he said. “The more we expand out into the woodlands, the more the perimeter of those woodlands we have (with residential areas). In western Travis County, our topography and our fuel type, meaning how the trees and bushes are arranged, we are more susceptible to having a more intense fire.”
However, Griggs said his department and other groups are working hard to mitigate the risk of wildfire. There are also steps that people can take to make their property safer in the event of a fire and to prevent it from spreading.
One step everyone can take is to contact their local fire department for a home inspection or ignition zone assessment. Lake Travis Fire Rescue, the Westlake Fire Department and the Travis County fire marshal all provide the service for free to residents in their respective regions.
Chris Rea, a wildfire mitigation specialist at Lake Travis Fire Rescue, performs those one-on-one assessments to help homeowners prepare for the worst-case scenario. He said having an expert visit your property and make specific recommendations is a great place to start.
However, there are other ways everyone can take to make their property safer. These include keeping debris off the roof and out of the gutters, Rea said. He also recommended having three to five feet of space around the foundation of a home with limited or no vegetation to reduce the risk of fire spreading from outside to inside.
Rea also recommended people increase their awareness of the conditions around them and know what days bring high fire risk. Nationally, 90% of fires are caused by humans and he said people should be extra careful with sparks and flames on days with low humidity and high winds when it has not rained recently.
Experts also recommend having an evacuation plan that details how you will get out of your neighborhood and to a safe space in the event of a fire.
Fire departments and cities are also taking steps to reduce the risk of fire and increase preparedness. Since 2013, Lake Travis Fire Rescue has had a wildfire mitigation crew that works to install shaded fuel breaks in green spaces around homes, a strategy to keep fires from spreading by removing more flammable vegetation and leaving larger, more fire-tolerant trees in place.
Howard said that as county commissioner she is compiling a list of projects that would make her district safer in the event of a fire, such as roads that could be paved or neighborhoods that need better water flow. As she continues into her first term, she will work on getting these projects across the finish line, she said.
Amy Pattillo, a Rollingwood City Council member, said that one of her takeaways from the winter freeze was the importance of maintaining relationships with county agencies and the staff of surrounding cities.
“For the city, post-winter storm, there’s been an emphasis on continuing to understand what connections we need to have so we have enough resources to manage emergencies,” she said.
Rollingwood Police Chief Jason Brady, who has been coordinating with the Westlake Fire Department on this issue, said the city is also looking at possible changes to the code of ordinances to enhance fire safety. He said he recommended to the City Council that it look into adding a section to the ordinance where if Travis County announces a burn ban, the city would automatically do the same.
For those who are nervous about fire preparedness, Brady recommended looking at the county’s Ready, Set, Go fire guide at bit.ly/3h8ac8O.
Rea said it’s important for everyone to do their part to prevent wildfires from starting and spreading.
“We say wildfires are everyone’s fight,” he said. “Wildfire doesn’t see property lines, so the more people that come to the table, whether that be private homeowners or city municipalities or HOAs or what have you, the more effective we will be.”
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Wildfire risk is higher because of the winter freeze. Here’s what you can do.
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