Lessons from the Labor Day fires

The hottest summer on record, an exceptional drought and dry winds have combined to create dangerous conditions and a high risk for wildfire in Central Texas. By the end of the past week, fires had killed two people and destroyed almost 1,400 homes in and around Austin. Most of the homes lost are in the Bastrop area, where fire has consumed about 35,000 acres. But the drought has put the entire state at risk: Since the current fire season began in November 2010, about 3.6 million acres have burned in Texas, destroying homes in Oak Hill, Fort Davis, Possum Kingdom and many other communities. (If you’re having trouble visualizing how big 3.6 million acres is, see maps comparing that with U.S. metropolitan areas at this blog from The Atlantic.)

And the fires aren’t out yet. See locations of active fires from the Texas Forest Service and Weather Underground.

Our neighborhood is blessed with large trees and surrounded with greenspace that create a sense of peace and isolation for us and a home for wildlife. But they also create a fire risk, especially when conditions are this dry. Take a look at what surrounds Burleson Heights and Burleson-Parker.

Burleson Hieghts (red) and Burleson-Parker (gold) neighborhoods are surrounded with tree-filled areas, many of which have dense undergrowth and dead wood that can create a fire hazard. Copyright CAPCOG, U.S. Geological Survey, USDA Farm Service Agency. From Google.

Dead trees and branches, tall weeds and dense undergrowth are a wildfire risk. Much of the property surrounding our neighborhood is not maintained by absentee owners.

If you follow this blog’s Twitter feed @HurlyBurlyATX , you’ve seen lots of advice this week for how to stay informed and keep wildfires from damaging your home. (Not a Twitter user? You can still read posts online or see the five most recent posts at the lower right corner of this page.) Here’s a roundup of some of the best information from agencies and news sources that circulated this week.

Firewise planning
A home within one mile of a natural area is within the “ember zone,” in which burning embers can be carried by winds. To protect your home, create a “defensible space” to keep combustible materials a safe distance away: Trim tree canopies to at least 10 feet from your home, clean rain gutters, remove low-growing vegetation that allows fire to spread to trees, cut grass to a maximum height of 4 inches, store wood piles away from your house, and be aware that wood decks and fences can allow fire to reach your house. See a virtual model of a firewise landscape, and learn more about creating one at a free online course from the National Fire Protection Association’s nonprofit Firewise Communities program.

The San Antonio Express-News ran a good story on how prescribed, controlled fires that were done in the past in some areas burned off combustible materials and kept last week’s wildfires from being even worse. Go to page two of the story for a very good graphic on defensible space/landscape planning.

Make sure all vents at your house are covered with 1/8-inch or smaller metal mesh, and choose masonry siding (such as stone or HardiePlank) and fire-resistant roofing (such as metal) when you build or remodel. Make sure your chimney is at least 10 feet away from tree canopies, and cover it with 1/4-inch or smaller metal mesh. Have several long garden hoses accessible around your home at all times. See more excellent advice in a PDF of the Texas Forest Service’s wildfire-ready brochure.

Firewise planning works. In July, a community on Hamilton Pool Road that had integrated firewise strategies into its design was spared during a 400-acre wildfire. Read a newspaper story about the fire around the Belvedere subdivision.

Even individual homeowners can make a difference. See a list of other firewise resources, especially for landscaping, here. There might even be grants available to help cover the cost for private property owners.

Keep informed
You can sign up to receive telephone or text message alerts about evacuations and emergencies in your area from the Emergency Notification System of the 10-county Capital Area Council of Governments. Get alerts affecting your home, office, school and other locations that you specify when you register. 

When in doubt, get out
Having an evacuation plan can save your life, your pets and your most important possessions and documents when you have no other options in a fire, flood or other disaster. 
Learn how to create an evacuation plan and kit from Ready.gov or the city’s office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Road closures
Wildfires have closed Texas 71 and other major roads around Austin. To find a path to safety, check on road conditions or see a map of construction and closures, see the Texas Department of Transportation road conditions site or call (800) 452-9292.

A natural way to clear land
Goats eat the brush and weeds that fuel wildfires. They’ve been used extensively in hillside neighborhoods in the West, where they can remove combustible plants on terrain that’s too difficult for people to reach. They even eat kudzu, a vine that has choked out native trees and plants in the South.

Some goat farmers hire out their herds to cities and neighborhoods. It would require a property owner’s permission, but it might be one way to control the dense undergrowth that creates a fire risk and conceals homeless camps and illegal activity around our neighborhood.

Read more in this PDF from a joint program of the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.

Share ideas
Have more tips? Share them in our neighborhood Google Groups, in comments in this blog or via the contact form.


About burlyheights

C. Forrest is a longtime resident of Burleson Heights.
This entry was posted in Fire prevention, Safety. Bookmark the permalink.

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