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Public Safety Commission backs adoption of international wildfire code

Wednesday, June 5, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The Public Safety Commission is again recommending tighter wildfire protection standards for structures built between the city’s wildlands and urban center.

On Monday the commission endorsed adoption of a Wildland-Urban Interface Code that would expand ember protection and structure hardening regulations for new homes and remodels built near wildlands.

City Council has previously discussed adopting a WUI Code following the commission’s similar recommendations in June 2013 and March 2016. Council passed a resolution directing former City Manager Marc Ott to evaluate the WUI Code in May 2016 for potential adoption, but those efforts were fruitless.

The code will be based on the International WUI Code, a model code meant to supplement a jurisdiction’s fire and building codes.

If adopted, the code will apply to new construction and remodels within the wildland-urban interface, the zone of transition between wildlands and developed areas.

Examples of code mandates are proper use of ignition-resistant construction materials, diligent vegetation management, safe storage of combustible materials like liquefied petroleum gas, and installation of spark arrestors on fire chimneys.

Austin’s wildland-urban interface is predominantly located to the east and west along the city’s slightly more dense north-south spine. The zone includes 64 percent of land within the city limits, further broken down into four hazard severity zones: moderate, high, extreme, and preserves. Nearly a third of the zone is identified as areas of extreme hazard severity while an additional third is preserve land.

Because of their proximity to wildlands, structures within the wildland-urban interface face a greater risk of being impacted by a wildfire than those built farther away. About 61 percent of homes in Austin are within the wildland-urban interface.

Mark Baker, wildland-urban interface coordinator with the Austin Fire Department, said adoption of a WUI Code can greatly reduce the risk of fire damage to compliant structures.

Citing California as an example, Baker said the structures built after the state adopted its WUI Code in 2008 were much more resistant to damage from last year’s catastrophic Camp Fire than those built before the code was implemented. While a little more than half of homes built after 2008 remained standing after the fire, only 18 percent of pre-2008 homes survived.

Implementing the code could cost the city an estimated $1.5 million in hiring personnel, operations, and community outreach and education. Michelle Tanzola, an AFD spokesperson, told the Monitor that plans have not been finalized and it’s not yet clear how much expenses would be ongoing versus initial or temporary investments.

Whatever the final costs, the investments are likely to save money in the long term: According to a 2017 report by the National Institute of Building Sciences, investing in a WUI Code has an average overall hazard benefit-cost ratio of 4:1.

Although Austin has experienced several consecutive wet years, the potential for devastating wildfires still looms over the region.

While details have not been finalized, the city may also have a chance to recover close to the entirety of the funds spent on implementation by charging fees for site plan reviews and inspections.

Existing homes would not be subject to new structural regulations but homeowners may be required to comply with any updated maintenance policies such as vegetation management. Properties would also be subject to the new standards for any portions undergoing a remodel.

Commissoner Rebecca Webber said the city’s code should also take into account the 29 percent of land within the WUI that is preserve land. The WUI model code has no provisions for wildlands, but Baker said the department could return at a later date and discuss possible measures.

Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker said the city would need time to sit down with individual landowning stakeholders to discuss measures to protect the wildlands and the surrounding communities.

With the commission’s endorsement, the proposal will go before the city’s Building and Fire Code Board of Appeals in August for a final recommendation to Council. The proposal will then go to Council for public hearing and possible action in October.

If approved, the city will begin finalizing details, conducting public outreach, hiring necessary staff and implementing the code from October to March 2020.

Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service.

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