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City departments continue refining wildfire evacuation plan

Tuesday, October 11, 2022 by Nina Hernandez

Last week, City Council’s Mobility Committee learned about the regional response and evacuation plan that would go into effect in the event of a wildfire.

“Wildfires know no boundaries and looking at what we’re doing in terms of coordination, we’re working across those jurisdictional boundaries,” said Jim Dale, assistant director of the Transportation Department. “The boundaries not just within the city itself between departments but also with agencies here in the region.”

Transportation is one of four city agencies charged with responding to a wildfire emergency, along with Austin Fire, Austin Police, and Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The presentation followed the city’s current wildfire evacuation plan, which begins with Austin Fire. Assistant Chief Andre de la Reza told the committee that the response actually begins before the fire starts. During periods of elevated wildfire risk, AFD sends warnings to Homeland Security, which spreads the alert to regional partners.

In the event a wildfire is reported, Austin Fire’s first incident commander on scene will assess the situation and take action. If the fire is small, the best practice is for that crew to start attacking the flames. If the fire is larger, can’t be quickly contained and threatens lives, an evacuation or shelter-in-place order will be executed.

Any time an evacuation occurs, AFD notifies a dedicated dispatcher who alerts Homeland Security. HSEM then activates the emergency operations center, which coordinates the response. The dispatch will send notification to residents through the Everbridge and Reverse 911 systems while AFD and APD go door-to-door making evacuation notifications if needed.

AFD will coordinate with law enforcement officers on evacuation routes while continuing to assess fire severity and determine resource needs. AFD will establish an incident command protocol and staging area to report to the emergency operations center.

De la Reza said Austin’s fire pattern is generally to have multiple, small, 100-acre or less fires that pop up throughout the region. Crews can simultaneously be tackling fires on opposite ends of the city.

“We have to make sure we’re keeping awareness of the entire region and the resources,” de la Reza said. “We want to send as many resources as appropriate while still maintaining a ready staff so that we can deal with the high possibility of other events that are going to happen at the same time.”

In addition to evacuation and rescue operations, APD is responsible for traffic control and security for the evacuation zone and its perimeter.

HSEM is responsible for coordinating all responding entities, overseeing public information distribution, activating shelters and reception areas, and updating regional leaders on incident progress. The agency oversees requests for state and federal assistance and would coordinate reentry and recovery operations if needed.

Homeland Security is also responsible for coordinating the city’s work on its Wildland-Urban Interface Evacuation Code, which Council updated in 2020.

The Transportation Department plays a supporting role in the response strategy. The department is currently reviewing AFD’s proposed evacuation routes for high-risk neighborhoods and will be able to estimate the number of traffic control devices it needs on hand in the event of a fire. The department is also working out evacuation signal timing plans for those communities to help residents exit safely in an emergency.

Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter, who requested the briefing, said while she believes the departments have made progress on the plan, it’s still lacking specificity. She also said the plan, and particularly ATD’s role in it, has still not been fully incorporated into the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan. That would be a “missed opportunity,” she said, indicating she will request another update in the future.

“If I had to say what keeps me up at night as a Council member it is the scenario of a wildfire and not having the evacuation work properly,” she said. “So I’m really pleased to have you all four here demonstrating how you’re working together.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license

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