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Austin has a new Wildland-Urban Interface fire code

Monday, April 13, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

After years of planning and preparation, City Council unanimously adopted the Wildland-Urban Interface Code last Thursday.

In addition to adopting the code, which focuses on regulating building codes to protect structures against wildfires, Council Member Alison Alter made a motion instructing the city manager to outline a separate stakeholder process addressing vegetation management and fuel mitigation strategies. That motion also passed unanimously.

“This is not the complete package,” Council Member Alter said of the WUI Code. She explained that vegetation management and fuel mitigation were also key to reducing the severity of wildfires. Alter represents District 10, which has the highest number of homes abutting wildland in the city, according to an analysis by the Austin Fire Department.

District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan praised the code, saying that while additional protections need to be implemented, the mitigation strategies in the WUIC are changes that cannot be delayed. “Nothing is going to stop a wildfire from starting, certainly not a pandemic, and we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to be prepared for it,” he said.

Even with the passage of the new code, Austin Fire Marshal Tom Vocke told Council it will take some time to begin hardening and preparing defensible structures citywide. The new Wildland-Urban Interface Code will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021, at which point the Austin Fire Department Wildfire Division will work on ramping up a dedicated team for permit review and inspection. Vocke estimated the startup cost of these efforts will total $1.5 million.

Permit review is an integral function of the new fire code as it will apply to new construction and remodels in areas of Austin where development meets the wildlands. Construction in these areas will require the proper use of ignition-resistant construction materials, diligent management of defensible space around homes, safe storage of combustible materials like liquefied petroleum gas, and installation of spark arrestors on fire chimneys.

The new building requirements will work in conjunction with the efforts of the Austin Fire Department. “Along with the firefighting force, we need the help of the code which will really help protect the structures,” said Vocke. Austin has 647 miles of developable land interfacing with wildlands, and 52 percent of the city has a high or elevated risk of wildfire.

According to Vocke, the majority of wildfire risk for homes comes from embers jumping from structure to structure. By focusing on hardening homes and making them resistant to flames, the primary focus of the new fire code will be “the most cost-effective way for us to provide the needed coverage,” he said.

To supplement the efficacy of the code changes, AFD sponsors 18 local chapters of the national Firewise program, which educates communities in at-risk zones and encourages the creation of fire-prevention strategies for homes that are not subject to the new fire code.

Alter noted that working to regulate vegetation management and fuel mitigation strategies will further prepare existing neighborhoods for wildfire. “It’s really a matter of when and not if for Austin,” she said.

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