Tuesday, January 13, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Watershed Protection touts wildfire plan progress

Watershed Protection Department staff told the Environmental Board on Wednesday that they have begun to implement an intergovernmental plan designed to help prevent catastrophic wildfires in the future.

Senior Environmental Compliance Specialist Ryan Hebrink stressed that the Austin/Travis County Community Wildfire Protection Plan is “not a regulatory document, but a strategic tool.” Travis County, City of Austin and Texas Forest Service officials adopted the plan Nov. 14 of last year.

The plan’s three primary objectives, Hebrink said, are “restoring and maintaining healthy landscapes, creating and supporting fire-adapted communities and using a risk-based management response to wildfires.”

Hebrink said that Watershed Protection staff have published and promoted educational materials online, including a downloadable version of the plan, an interactive wildfire risk assessment map and a 40-page risk reduction and recovery guide, called “Before and After the Fire: Environmental Best Management Practices for Wildfire Risk Reduction and Recovery.”

Hebrink added that staff have given out physical copies of the guide — printed in April 2014 — at community events, workshops and meetings with neighborhood organizations. They’re also considering a distribution plan that would include placing them in racks at local hardware stores, plant nurseries and related locations.

Environmental Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell encouraged Watershed Protection staff to go further by distributing the guides to local grocery stores and other less specialized places so that a wider array of residents will happen upon them. “It’s so beautiful,” she said, “it needs to be out there and needs to be seen.”

Hebrink later told the Austin Monitor that the plan breaks up Travis County into 83 different planning districts and ranks them based on wildfire risk and susceptibility, which will affect implementation. “Partially, we’ll be looking at those risk rankings and targeting our efforts toward the most at-risk communities,” Hebrink said. “But we’ll be spreading our efforts around the county.”

In addition to working with and educating private property owners, Hebrink said that Watershed Protection is working with the Austin Fire Department and other agencies to prepare and protect wild lands, including the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.

Watershed Protection staff are also preparing to get involved in the emergency response objective of the plan, Hebrink said. “We do plan to have some role in the emergency response to wildfires, and certainly after the fire to mitigate secondary impact,” he said. “But we’re still ironing out exactly what those roles and responsibilities look like in coordination with other emergency response agencies like the Fire Department.”

Watershed Protection Environmental Officer Chuck Lesniak told the Monitor that the plan aims to address misconceptions about wildfire management that spread after an extreme 2011 Texas wildfire season.

“A lot of people had an initial reaction of, ‘Let’s cut down all of the trees around the houses and the buildings and just put in lots of rock and stone and just clear-cut things,’” Lesniak said. “From an environmental standpoint, that’s not a great idea, because it has a lot of unintended consequences.”

“We’ve developed a wildfire management plan that’s unique in the country in that we took a really hard look at how you could protect the environment at the same time that you manage wildfire risk,” Lesniak continued. “I think we’ve been really successful, and I suspect that this will become a model, nationwide, for how you do environmental protection and wildfire management.”

Members of the public can access the plan at austintexas.gov/wildfireprotectionplan.

Photo by the National Guard (Flickr: Texas National Guard fight wildfire) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Fire Department: firefighters who serve residents inside Austin city limits.

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

Texas Forest Service: A Texas A&M service to conserve and protect the state’s trees.

Watershed Protection Department: The city's Watershed Protection Department works to reduce the impact of floods, erosion and water pollution in the city. The department is mostly funded by the city's drainage fee.

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