Texas has seen its driest conditions in nearly a century. High winds, high temperatures and low humidity equate to a recipe for disaster. The fire in Southwest Austin on Sunday destroyed 11 houses, damaged 10 more badly, and scorched over 100 acres, according to the Travis County Fire Department. This was a rare occurrence in Central Texas, and citizens native to the area stated that this is one of the worst fire disasters they’ve seen in their lifetimes.
Additionally, over a million and a half acres have burned in the recent West Texas wildland fires, and more fires are anticipated. The Texas firestorm weather is moving farther east, toward more populated urban areas less equipped to deal with wildland fires of this scale.
Every year thousands of wildland fire ignitions occur throughout the United States and each one must be identified through select fire management objectives, where thorough knowledge of fire physics and mitigating strategies are essential. Most fires do not become an urban threat because they are managed by experienced firefighters. However, those fires that do get out of hand result in dramatic effects on resource values, property damage, appearance of natural landscapes and public outcry.
The source of the problem? The urban wildlife interface phenomenon.
On the edges of our cities and towns, there is a living, dynamic relationship between urban development and natural habitats. Human beings have an instinctive desire to settle on the edge of beautiful landscapes, where, unfortunately, natural disasters are most likely to occur. Whether it is on the hurricane- and flood-prone coasts, on the side of volcanoes, or at the edge of a forest, we settle in these regions because they are beautiful.
Unfortunately, these sites are as dangerous as they are attractive.
Fortunately, this is a problem that can be mitigated as long as policymakers and property owners recognize the dangers that are waiting outside their back doors.
While some things might be difficult to change in existing subdivisions or communities, there are considerations planners should make as new developments and construction is done. Some may also be addressed in local planning and zoning statutes, building codes and other development ordinances.
Tips for community planners:
Street and address markings
All roads and addresses should be clearly marked and maintained in readable conditions using non-combustible materials.
Access for firefighters
Roads leading to, through and around subdivisions and isolated homes should be designated with emergency vehicles in mind. Roads should be wide enough to handle both emergency vehicles entering the area, as well as other traffic leaving.
Isolated developments or subdivisions relying on their own water systems rather than a municipal system should meet local fire department standards.
Evacuation plans and routes
Plans should be created and known to both for individuals and communities potentially impacted by the plans.
To be successful in reducing community losses, look beyond structures – consider protection of water and view sheds, power corridors, recreational areas, etc.
As the Texas climate changes, wildland fires will become more prevalent and widespread threats, both for homeowners and urban planners, who must keep emergency strategies in mind when developing and settling on the edge of fire-susceptible ranchland and forests. In fact, most of the state is under a burn ban today, and Travis County Fire Marshal Hershel Lee does not anticipate it will be lifted any time soon based on current conditions.
In the mean time, land and property owners should keep mitigating strategies or evacuation plans in mind while current conditions persist:
Keep a defensible space of at least 30 feet away from a house or structure. This area should be free of any trash or combustibles, such as debris or woodpiles. Additionally, any brush should be cleared or thinned within 100 feet to avoid radiant heat.
Have the proper tools on hand, such as hoses, ladders, buckets and fire extinguishers.
Dispose of tree and lawn clippings, leaves or any other materials for burning in a safe manner to avoid accidentally starting a wildland fire.
Internal combustion engines
Fires can be ignited by equipment and vehicles, which produce sparks and heat. They should be equipped with spark arresters to prevent spark emissions and special considerations should be used with operating any vehicles in areas of dry vegetation.
Hundreds of thousands of homeowners are at serious risk of losing their property and even their lives. Many don’t understand the risk they face. Others may be in areas without fire protection. Even those who do have adequate fire protection may find that when a wildland fire strikes, firefighters will not be able to be at every single home to protect it.
What to do if a fire threatens your home:
- Have a plan to evacuate family members and pets.
- Make the decision and take action to evacuate early to avoid being caught in traffic, or even the fire itself.
- Make sure everyone from the home knows the location of a prearranged meeting place and evacuation routes.
- Place valuables and important papers inside your vehicle in the garage, facing out with windows rolled up.
- Disconnect electric garage door openers so the door can be opened manually in the event of a power outage.
- Don’t panic, remain calm and remain in touch with emergency personnel if available.