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Struggle coming over which agency should lead on prescribed burns

Friday, March 7, 2014 by Gene Davis

After hearing that wildfire prevention efforts led to the prescribed burn of approximately 200 acres in 2013, several Public Safety Commissioners said this week that they worried that any burn not led by the Austin Fire Department poses a safety risk.


AFD implements prescribed burns, which reduces the risk of serious wildfires, with partners such as the Austin Water Utility. However, Commissioner Michael Levy said AFD is not necessarily the lead agency of every burn, which he believes is a safety risk.


“It’s dangerous; it’s bad policy,” he said.


Commissioner Reynaldo Moreno said he would likely sponsor a future resolution to make AFD the lead agency on all prescribed burns.


However, Willie Conrad, division manager of Wildland Conservation for the Austin Water Utility, said after the meeting that Moreno and Levy’s statements were based on assumption and not fact. Austin Water Utility’s prescribed burn program has been a successful program for 13 years, he said. The utility’s program is based on national standards and fully complies with Texas code and regulation, he said.


“We are more than willing to compare our (prescribed burn) program to any in the country,” he said.


Levy pointed out that a Colorado prescribed burn that became a wildfire and killed two people in 2012 proves that a prescribed burn has the potential to be dangerous and deadly. Given the proven dangerous stakes, Levy said AFD should be in charge of every prescribed burn.


“We know that there have been fatalities because of non fire department agencies trying to play firefighter without the degree of training we have,” he said.


In rebuttal, AFD Chief of Staff Harry Evans said AFD reviews and approves any planned prescribed burn and is on site for the burn. 


“We would not allow unsafe acts to go on,” he said.


Evans added that the AFD partners with multiple agencies to allow prescribed burns in more locations, including protected lands. AFD would become the lead agency if any prescribed burn became a wildfire, he said.


“Partnerships are important as every year that goes by, the wildfire division becomes much stronger, it’s more widely trained, there’s more staff, and it evolves and expands,” he said. “I think we are going in the direction we need to go to make sure the community is safe and we deal with the wildfire threat.”


The debate over what agency should lead prescribed burns followed a general wildfire update by AFD Assistant Director Jim Linardos and Battalion Chief David Girouard. In addition to the prescribed burns, Linardos said other successful wildfire-related efforts in 2013 included the acquisition of a wildfire division fleet that has F-350 trucks, small UTV brush trucks, and an incinerator. AFD also recently held wildfire-related community symposiums and is in the process of establishing a wildfire protection plan.


Chairman Kim Rossmo urged Linardos and Girouard to bring forward any AFD-related problems or needs. Linardos said the completion of the wildfire protection plan will clarify the needs or possible problem areas facing AFD. The plan will be ready in April or May, he said.

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