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Safety commission hears about fire danger in area woodlands

Wednesday, May 9, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Ecologist Steven Carothers has a name for the lush closed canopy of green leafy  trees that cover his Northwest Hills neighborhood: a time bomb.


Co-Chair Mike Levy gathered Carothers and others at Monday’s Public Safety Commission meeting to discuss fire danger and fire readiness in the Central Texas region. In his opening remarks, Levy said that an uncontrolled firestorm could easily take out 10,000 homes in Austin, a prediction Carothers echoed.


Justice Jones with the Texas Forest Service presented the commission with a view of the fire danger map that was startling when it came to Central Texas. Wide swaths of land are noted with the high danger red and orange colors. Those colors are, in part, because of the region’s willingness to maintain the proper habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo.


“This is a gigantic and controversial subject, and I’m going to hold myself to the five minutes (time limit) with sound bites,” Carothers said. “The issue of the endangered species and how many birds are out there, and how much forest we need is something that I want to speak to.”


Carothers said he was sympathetic to those who worked tirelessly to maintain endangered species habitat, as outlined in the federal Endangered Species Act.


How big a deal is it? Carothers asked rhetorically. When the golden-cheeked warbler was designated endangered back in 1990, it was thought 15,000 males existed in the region. The vireo was thought to have no more than 5,000 to 6,000.


Researchers at Texas A&M University this week put the number of male golden-cheeked warblers at 260,000 in the community.


“Is that a big mistake? Not really,” Carothers said. “We didn’t know at the time what we were looking at. We knew it was a limited bird. The point I’m making here is that there are 20 times more birds out there than we thought there were when those birds were listed.”


The warbler, in particular, nests in heavily overgrown undisturbed juniper, oak and cedar. The explosion in numbers, Carothers said, ought to give the region more latitude to use controlled burns to control brush, known as “fire control” or “fire management.” Such work requires federal permits, he said. Neither the city nor Travis County has those.


“Climate change is coming. Things are drying out. It’s going to get worse,” Carothers, originally based in Arizona, told the commission. “We’ve got a lot of dead fuel in the ground. I’m coming from a place where I see these dead fuels spreading into horrible fires.”


Fire officials, including Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, were on hand for the hearing. Levy asked fire officials, especially those putting the area’s strategic wildfire management plan together, to consider burn permits as part of the region’s strategy. Such an effort would be help to minimize fire danger.


Austin’s fire department has been training, off and on, since 2004 to contain a major fire in the western areas of Travis County. That was put to the test with the Oak Hill fire a year ago, which was limited to destroying only 11 homes.


Lt. Randy Denzer, who focuses on wild land training for the Austin Fire Department, called the 100-acre Pinnacle fire the first true test of Austin’s ability to address what he called “an urban interface fire.”


“It was a turning point in our training for wild fires,” Denzer said. “We had a lot of theories and practices, but we didn’t have a fire to put them to use.”


Procedures and policies were overhauled to meet wildfire demands. Command-level staff was trained to handle urban wild fire situations. A partnership was fostered with the water utility to handle prescribed burns. All of it was a huge change for the fire department, Denzer said.


“The training and those policies were shown in the success of the Pinnacle fire,” Denzer said. “Everything put into the effort, time and energy actually paid off. It’s never great when you lose houses, but we were getting calls from all over the country after that fire, asking for our wild land urban interface policies.”


Fire department officials appeared to take extensive notes during the meeting. In closing remarks, AFD Chief of Staff Harry Evans outlined a lengthy list of training, equipment and efforts intended to keep the region safe during wildfire season.

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