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Proposed plan for preventing wildfires could prove controversial

Tuesday, December 6, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Officials with the Austin Fire Department are readying new elements of the fire code that might help protect city residents from out-of-control wildfires. According to an aggressive timetable presented Monday to the city’s Public Safety Commission by AFD Engineering Manager Carl Wren, the new rules could be ready for a Council vote as early as April.

 

If adopted, the new rules — known as the Wildland-Urban Interface Code would offer the city and its residents an enforceable tool for outlining how developers can construct buildings that abut wild spaces. It could also be extended to deal with how the city manages burnable detritus in those areas.

 

The code is a model code — a template with general rules that would require city officials to amend it specifically for Austin’s needs. “It’s a place to start,” AFD Chief of Staff Harry Evans told In Fact Daily.

 

At the hearing, Commission Vice Chair Mike Levy expressed his concern that, even if the code is adopted, it may initially be limited in scope to issues within 100 feet of the boundary of a given property. Levy pressed Wren and Evans to expand the enforceable limits of any new rules. “Our concern, I think, should be everything outside that 100-foot limit,” he said.

 

When Levy asked Wren if he could think of any examples of wildland code that extend beyond 100 feet of a property line, Wren replied that he could not. “I realize that you’re charting new ground,” Levy said.

 

Still, he continued with the issue. “Unless we really aggressively approach the … risk outside the 100-foot limit, I think we’re going to lose more structures,” he said. “We can’t protect the entire city, but I think we can save more rather than less.”

 

Levy also keyed in on the idea that the new rules might not meet with universal excitement. “It’s politically sensitive,” he suggested. “There are folks … the Balcones (Canyonlands Conservation) folks, that are very concerned about doing anything with their area of concern. But, the risk to the surrounding properties … is enormous.”

 

For this reason and more, Wren emphasized the need for a robust public process. “We have to have these stakeholders buy in,” he said. “That’s one reason why we need this time for stakeholder meetings.”

 

If Wren’s schedule holds, fire officials would begin meeting with internal city stakeholders — including the Parks and Recreation Department, Austin Water Utility, Austin Energy, and many more — to discuss the potential new regulations in January. His team would move on to bring in stakeholders in the community shortly thereafter.

All of that would put the new rules on track for presentation to city boards and commissions in February or March. If they sail through, they could be in front of Council for action as soon as early April. If the rules prove controversial — as seems more likely — the Council might not take action until after the Council election in May.

 

Commission Chair Michael Lauderdale wondered how quickly the city could act on the code once if it is adopted. “I’m beginning to feel we’ve got another summer coming, when, in effect, that (fire) fuel load remains largely out there,” he said.

 

Evans said he would have an answer to that question for the commission at its next meeting.

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