Waking up to Wildfire and the Journey to Become Rapidly Fire Adapted
The 2011 Wildfire season marked the dawn of wildfire awareness in the city of Austin and communities across Travis County. Two destructive wildfires in particular painted a daunting picture of the threat fire in the Wildland Urban Interface poses to our communities: the Pinnacle fire—juxtaposed with the Austin Community College high-rise looming in the background, which ultimately served as the incident command post—and the Steiner Ranch fire in a large subdivision on the outskirts of the Austin city limits. Both fires averaged around 100 acres and were relatively small in size, but resulted in significant loss of homes and natural resources and caused major evacuations in the area. More jarring was the fact that the fires quickly transitioned to an urban conflagration, where homes ignited adjacent structures and, more insidiously, homes blocks away from the main fire.
These fires led to a multiyear, multifaceted project to address wildland fire safety in Austin-Travis County. Wildfire Division Program Director Justice Jones said, “It’s not a matter of if, but rather when the next wildfire will occur, and it’s the steps you take now to prepare that will matter most when the next firestorm occurs.”
In 2013, the Austin Fire Department (AFD) along with federal, state and local partners, developed the first Travis Countywide Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), a plan specifically designed to reduce wildland fire risk according to the needs of Austin-Travis County. From this plan, a risk management approach was adopted, including firefighter training and community education. For example, all AFD firefighters are now certified in wildland firefighting techniques.
In addition, two national programs were promoted by AFD and its partners to educate the Austin-Travis County community on fire prevention and protection: Ready, Set, Go! and Firewise. Ready Set Go provides a model for individual and family wildfire preparedness, and Firewise principles instruct communities about specific emergency plans and property protection measures that can be used to enhance a community’s wildfire resiliency. A combination of these programs with town hall meetings resulted in Austin-Travis County leading the state in the number of Firewise communities in the United States. In order to assist other communities in their process of becoming Firewise and to create a multiplier effect among communities working to reduce their collective risk, Austin Firewise communities united in 2013 to form the Austin Firewise Alliance.
The goal of wildland fire efforts in Austin-Travis County is to have a prepared and informed community and a fire department that responds efficiently and safely in the event of a wildland fire. Extensive training and educational events available to the local firefighters and community have resulted in Austin-Travis County becoming a Fire Adaptive Community model replicable to other communities. Partnerships, cooperation, technical expertise, education, action and funding have enabled the success of this project. Wildfire doesn’t respect boundaries, so the safer the individual the safer the community. As they say in Austin, “Wildfire is everyone’s fight.”