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Zoning and Platting Commission weighs in on proposed fire code

Tuesday, August 20, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

As Austin weathers the dog days of summer, wildfire risk is once again a hot topic in the city.

A new report this week by the Office of the City Auditor said that the city could be doing a better job of fireproofing areas outside of the urban core, an area that’s roughly two-thirds of the city.

The Zoning and Platting Commission likewise feels that more needs to be done to address fire risk in the outer rings of the city. At ZAP’s Aug. 6 meeting, Commissioner Jim Duncan said that the fire risk in the outskirts of Austin is something that has been ignored for too long.

“If you look at District 10, it’s almost all extreme hazard,” he said.

The commission discussed the necessity of a fire code that requires the use of fire-resistant materials in construction and actively reduces threats in areas prone to burning.

This is not the first time the city has considered these code changes: Council passed a resolution directing former City Manager Marc Ott to evaluate the Wildland-Urban Interface Code in May 2016 for potential adoption, but there were never any steps taken to enact the changes.

The new Wildland-Urban Interface Code has been in the works since then and the Austin Fire Department is expected to present a finalized draft to Council by December.

Duncan, who was previously the director of land services in the Development Services Department, told representatives from AFD that the need for wildfire mitigation is nothing new. He presented the case of a wildfire off Highway 360 across from the Arboretum in the 1980s. As a result of the steep grades and materials used in construction, a fire at an apartment complex called Aspen Hills destroyed 36 apartments and left 100 people homeless. “The damage was $1 million and that was 35 years ago,” he said.

To prevent such a catastrophe from occurring again, Duncan told AFD officials that when they present the revised code changes to Council this time around, “I hope you’re listened to.”

Commissioner Ana Aguirre noted that West Austin is not the only portion of the city at risk. “It looks like we still have a lot to do in East Austin,” she said.

East Austin has fewer trees and is therefore more susceptible to grass fires, which require different techniques to combat.

While the Wildland-Urban Interface Code remains in draft, Commissioner Ann Denkler encouraged AFD to continue to educate communities around the city through its Firewise program. She said in her district, District 7, “I’m really grateful that y’all are doing that because I’m seeing it slowly spread out into the neighborhood.”

The draft of the new fire code will go to Council for a public hearing and possible action in October. If approved, the implementation is expected to continue through March 2020.

Photo by AgriLife Today made available through a Creative Commons license.

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