Two years ago, on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend — September 4, 2011 — the most destructive fire in Texas history broke out in Bastrop County, 30 miles east of Austin. The fire burned for 37 days, scorching more than 32,000 acres and destroying 1,600 homes. By season’s end, more than $1 Billion in property throughout Texas was destroyed by wildfires, with 4,011,709 acres burned and 2,947 homes lost. With the state’s extended drought and rising summer temperatures, wildfire experts are once again predicting a longer and potentially more dangerous fire season. Though wildfires are natural occurrences, and in many cases are unavoidable, taking precautionary measures in the planning process can determine whether or not a community and its valuable assets survive the next big blaze.
1. PLANNING A SAFE COMMUNITY
Consulting with the state forestry service and local fire professionals is an essential first step in understanding wildfire hazards and regulations for community design in wildfire–prone areas. When considering location of home sites, think about site design from the point of view of an approaching fire, and identify landscape maintenance necessary to keep fire–prone vegetation from accumulating. Surviving a wildfire depends largely on access into and out of a community. A community’s road network should be planned to accommodate large emergency response vehicles and should be simple enough to allow quick and easy navigation to the site of any fire. At the same time, an efficient roadway network with multiple exits allows residents to evacuate safely in an emergency. More fire wise planning information is available at www.firewise.org.
2. PROTECTING INDIVIDUAL HOMES
The best way to protect new homes from future wildfires is to maintain a “defensible space” of 30 to 50 feet around all structures. Defensible space is the managed area between a structure and its natural surroundings that slows or halts the spread of wildfire to homes. This area should be mowed and watered on a regular basis. In the areas closest to homes, it is critical to keep vegetation away from decks, windows, and chimneys, which help fire to spread. Choosing fire resistant plants, such as drought tolerant species, lessens the chance of wildfire reaching and damaging homes. The spread of fire can also be slowed by clustering plants in islands with stones or other inflammable material separating them.
3. PRESERVING OPEN SPACE BUFFERS
“Maintenance of the defensible space is the key. It’s amazing how fast a fire will stop when there’s no fuel,” says Will Boettner, a Wildlife Urban Interface Specialist with the Texas A&M Forest Service. To slow the spread of wildfires, create and maintain a transition space of 200 to 300 feet between the community and the surrounding natural area. Simple elements such as roads and walking paths can serve as strategic fire breaks. Additionally, raising and thinning tree canopies—particularly in Ashe Juniper trees—reduces “ladder fuels,” which promote the spread of wildfire to the tree canopy. Keeping fire close to the ground allows firefighters to control a fire more effectively. For information on protecting the space between natural and built environments,visit www.texasfirewise.org.
FIRE ADAPTED COMMUNITY SYMPOSIUM
Join national, state, and local wildfire experts for this event on September 11, 2013 at the Texas State Capitol. Hosted by the National Fire Protection Association and the Austin Fire Department, topics will include Determining Wildfire Risk, Community Wildfire Protection Plans and more. More information is available on the symposium’s website.