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Panel seeks new station, other measures to combat wildfires

Tuesday, June 5, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Public Safety Commission on Monday recommended that the City of Austin adopt a long list of improvements to combat wildfires in the wake of last year’s drought and widespread fires.

 

“We enjoyed some spring rains, but all those rains did was significantly increase the amount of vegetation that will be drying up… The risk of extraordinary disaster is so great that we need to be able to move forward,” said Commissioner Michael Levy. “A lot of this has the need for Council funding. The manager’s office and the budget office have to be appropriately responsive and, obviously, vetting by the Council.”

 

Commissioner Ramey Ko opposed the resolution, after first advocating a postponement and then a rewording of the document. Ko ultimately was the lone vote against the resolution, which passed 4-1-1. Ko advocated having a stakeholder process prior to adopting the resolution, but other members rejected this approach.

 

The resolution lists nine points aimed at reducing wildfire risk in the Austin area, topped by the recommendation to build a third fire station in the Loop 360 corridor “as soon as possible.” Because this recommendation would require voter authorization to issue bonds to pay for it, the commission recommended the establishment of a temporary station in the meantime, as well as increasing manpower to fight fires.

 

The resolution also calls for the city to establish a wildland fire mitigation division and AFD to develop and implement a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP).

 

Assistant Fire Chief Harry Evans explained that the creation of the Community Wildfire Protection Plan would be “extremely complex,” given the size and scope of the problem.

 

“As we tried to work through the plan, we found out that the complexities are such that we’re going to ask for permission to submit an RFP and get a proposal to get some outside assistance for us in the creation of the CWPP,” said Evans.

 

Ko also expressed worry about a portion of the resolution that states the city must work with Travis County to create a single, unified countywide fire service.

 

“While, certainly, consolidation is an issue that will have a no doubt significant issue on wildfires, it’s something that goes way, way beyond. And I’m a little concerned that this is a sweeping resolution of a lot of elements that touch on a lot of considerations that go beyond the wildfire issue,” said Ko. “I just don’t see the appropriateness of having what is a huge policy issue included under a wildfire resolution. It just doesn’t seem germane.”

 

Ko noted that there was still a great deal of disagreement about how a countywide fire service would be created, but backed off of changing the resolution’s language, mollified by Levy’s assurances that the resolution only asked that the consolidation move at a faster pace because of an immediate need to work together in the region.

 

“In terms of county consolidation, that’s been moving along for the last couple years,” said Levy. “It’s an issue that both County Commissioners and the (City) Manager’s Office are supporting, and there appears to be very little opposition to it, because of the need for efficiency and the need for being able to work more closely together on the wildfire risk.”

 

The new plans would also seek increased funding for equipment, clothing, training, and the ability to bring in off-duty personnel during “red flag warnings,” when risk of wildfires is the highest.

 

Finally, the resolution asks that prescribed burns performed by Austin organizations be done under the supervision of the Austin Fire Department, and that the city develop a relationship with the Texas National Guard’s helicopter program.

 

Commissioner Kent Anshutz abstained from the vote on the resolution, explaining that he was uncomfortable with his lack of familiarity with the “International Wildland Interface Code.”

 

The resolution states that The International Wildland Interface Code “must be immediately adopted with modifications recommended by AFD.”

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