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Fire Department stands by recommendation on wildland fire mitigation

Monday, September 10, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The Austin Fire Department will continue to support its pitch for a two-phase ramp-up of a wildland fire mitigation division as the City of Austin’s budget process enters its final week. That news comes after weeks of substantial pressure from Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks for a much larger investment as part of the city’s FY2013 budget.

 

Nicks has called for an immediate, multimillion-dollar investment in wildland fire mitigation to fund the hiring of staffers – a “burn boss” to run prescribed burns, an ecologist and two issues-awareness positions – and to coordinate wildland fire mitigation efforts across the city under the banner of the Austin Fire Department, as well as public education efforts.

 

Though the fire department conducts some wildland fire operations, they are not of the scale desired by Nicks and some vocal supporters amid an ongoing drought and continued threat of wildfires. This investment would be on top of the wildland conservation efforts by the Austin Water Utility, which integrates a substantial amount of wildfire mitigation – including prescribed burns under its own burn boss – for the roughly 39,000 acres of area wildlands that it manages.

 

The utility’s Wildland Conservation program division manager Willy Conrad told In Fact Daily that wildfire mitigation is integral to his department’s work. “We consider fire management in everything we do,” Conrad said.

 

Conrad also emphasized the importance of the utility managing its own wildland fire efforts. He noted that the “primary goal” for the utility’s prescribed burning is watershed restoration. “We believe that reducing woodland canopy over this land increases the amount of rainfall that is available for recharge.”

 

The water utility manages water quality protection lands acquired through voter-approved bonds, as well as the Balcones Canyonland Preserve.

 

Nicks’ recent appearances before City Council and the city’s Public Safety Commission included some fear mongering—which he admits. In late August, Nicks came before Council members at a budget hearing and played a video from the recent Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado. “Can you imagine the economic and social impacts if this was to happen in West Austin?” he asked Council members. “There’s no reason to think you couldn’t translate this same scenario in to Austin.” (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 31, 2012.)

 

Conrad suggested that “the absolutely reasonable fear and emotion” that resulted from last year’s disastrous collection of area wildfires should not be ignored. However, he pointed to a discussion he’d heard at a professional conference. “Promoting a message of fear and extreme threats is really counterproductive to helping our community deal with fire,” Conrad said.

 

For his part, Assistant Fire Chief Harry Evans suggested that both Nicks and Conrad were right. He added that, though there is a potential for a large-scale wildfire in Austin, he didn’t want “people to operate from a position of fear.” (After reading this story, Evans said he wanted to emphasize that there is not a conflict between the department’s position and Nicks.’)

 

Evans also stood behind his department’s budget pitch. If approved, the FY2013 fire budget will include funding for three full-time wildland fire mitigation division employees, and the completion of a Community Wildfire Protection Plan – a document that would lay the groundwork for wildfire mitigation throughout the city, and would be scalable down to the individual home.

 

“I think what we’re asking for is a start,” Evans told In Fact Daily.

 

Budget readings are scheduled for 9am today and continue on Tuesday and Wednesday if necessary.

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