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Wildfire audit update shows more work ahead

Thursday, October 24, 2019 by Jo Clifton

After hearing a new report from the Office of the City Auditor on Austin’s wildfire response efforts, Council Member Alison Alter said while the report lays out appropriate next steps for the city to take, those steps are probably not enough given the serious nature of the risk. Alter is chair of the Council Audit & Finance Committee, which heard the report Wednesday.

According to another report recently released by CoreLogic, Austin ranks fifth in wildfire risk among 15 metropolitan areas, based on the cost of reconstructing homes that could be damaged or destroyed by wildfires.

“I deeply feel that we are not doing enough,” said Alter, chair of the committee. Alter represents District 10 in Northwest Austin, one of the most at risk of wildfire.

According to the audit, the city’s hazard mitigation plan identified 305 wildfire events in Austin within a 10-year period, with a wildfire event within the city highly likely within a year. In addition, auditors noted that over the last five years the number of acres burned has increased in every year but one. “Other plans suggest the probability of wildfire events increases as more housing extends to wildland areas,” the report said.

Alter was instrumental in adding additional funding to the budget of the Austin Fire Department this year in order to identify wildfire risk and proactively work to reduce that risk.

One of AFD’s plans seeks to reduce excess brush in order to mitigate wildfire danger. AFD has identified 647 miles of wildland urban interface land (WUI) but privately owned land accounts for 72 percent of that total. AFD told auditors that the city can treat only 98 miles of the public land to mitigate wildfire risk because of location, slope or environmental features. Auditors noted that most of the land in the potential treatment zone is in a high or elevated wildfire risk area.

Auditors noted that the Fire Department has been working for years on the Wildland Urban Interface code, which when finally enacted would require builders to use fire-resistant materials on new construction and on remodels of properties near the interface. In August, auditors said they expected the Fire Department to present a draft to Council by December.

Assistant Fire Chief Richard Davis, who works in the city’s Wildfire Division, told the committee his group has been meeting with residents to urge them to work with the city to clear brush that can fuel wildfires. Right now, Davis said, the department is going through the process of getting feedback from stakeholders about rules in the wildland urban interface. He added that there will still be “some overlap” between the WUI and the new Land Development Code.

Following the meeting, Davis told the Austin Monitor, “We’re still trying to figure out whether if something is in the Land Development Code it needs to be in the WUI code,” as they do not want to have some pieces in the land code and some in the WUI code.

After the meeting, Alter said, “The city should continue to work on its current plans, (but) we have to keep pushing to see what more we can be doing,” noting that residents in her district are acutely aware of the risk of wildfire.

“They live with it every day and when we have a summer like we have right now, my district is very much aware of the wildfire risk. But it’s up to us as policymakers to take steps that we can to mitigate that risk and make it as easy as possible for individuals who own private land in the wildfire urban interface to take action. And I’m hopeful that when we go through the next steps of the WUI code adoption that we will put something in there that has some teeth to actually make a dent in the private lands as we move forward, especially if we’re going to be building in those areas. It’s our responsibility to make sure that any building happens within a responsible framework.”

She explained, “At the back of my mind there’s not just the risk to bodies and communities, there’s also the financial consequences of not taking action.” She noted that the city had funded the construction of a new fire station in Southeast Austin and one of the reasons for the decision to do that quickly was that residents in the area were facing increased property insurance bills because they were not close enough to a fire station.

The committee sent auditors back to the drawing board after receiving the first iteration of the report, saying they needed more information about such a serious topic.

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Photo by Will-travel made available through a Creative Commons license.

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