All of us at NFPA and especially in the Firewise Communities program have been watching the news anxiously as Texas wildfires continue to rage and encroach on heavily populated areas in the central and eastern parts of the state. While news reports may sound like no one is prepared for these severe fires, our staff knows that more than 40 communities in the state – several in the Austin area – have indeed spent years preparing their homes as part of their participation in the Firewise Communities/USA recognition program.
I corresponded Tuesday with Millard McBurney, the Firewise Committee chairman for River Place, a subdivision in Austin served by the Lake Travis Fire District. River Place has been a recognized Firewise Communities/USA® site since 2008. Mr. McBurney writes:
River Place community has escaped the direct path of the wildfires so far. The Austin daytime temperatures fell below the 3-digit range yesterday (80 uninterrupted days in a row) and should not go above 92 today. The disasters at Steiner Ranch, roughly five miles across a canyon of wildland scrub forest, got everybody on alert. River Place has adopted the "Ready, Set, Go!" program from the Texas Forest Service for 2011. Our committee got City of Austin firemen to place a door hanger brochure on every front door advising our homeowners what to do. My wife and I rehearsed what valued papers etc to take and strategized which route north to Waco or Dallas we'd take. All other routes are congested.
Steiner Ranch fire professionals stopped all evacuated residents from returning. Even the mayor stood out front and explained that it was too dangerous to enter. Fifty-five hundred houses were without electricity. Many pets were stranded without food and water. As my wife and I stood on the hill at the intersection of River Place Boulevard and Treasure Island, a crowd gathered and many took pictures. Gray and white plumes of smoke huffed and puffed along the horizon. We saw two helicopters repeatedly deliver water scooped out of Lake Travis via airborne carrier buckets to the flame site. Although the wind blew the smoke away from River Place, we could smell it.
Many River Place residents have natural firebreaks in the front or back of their houses, sometimes both. Unfortunately, about 50 homes back up to greenbelts. Our committee has identified the worst case folks and we are making headway at least on awareness. The Home Owners Association (HOA) has already written a directive that automatically allows the homeowner to mitigate fuel 15 feet into HOA land. The Municipal Utility District (MUD) has also given permission in our one and only case of adjacent MUD property. We think that the country club will also permit some clearing, too. We are working with US Fish and Wildlife to gain access to the federal lands while the protected species are gone, but it is a long process.
One fire station out our way used a reverse 911 calling procedure that automatically contacted all residents in their given territory to evacuate immediately. I think that resulted in zero fatalities at Steiner.
Meanwhile in Bastrop County, 40 miles east of River Place, 476 (nearly 500 says the news media) homes burned completely. The pine trees, with their easily ignitable resins, are supporting the runaway characteristics of the wildfires around Bastrop city and county.
The Texas Forest Service is using 100% of its workers, materials and resources. Many have discovered complete ruin of their own home or that of a neighbor on the same cul de sac. TFS is requesting help from other cities. The Bastrop fire covers 40 square miles. It is deadly. Rain is not expected until November.
While residents there have been working hard to prepare, it is not until the extreme event occurs that these preparations are tested. While we know that using Firewise principles does not guarantee complete safety, we also know that these techniques and practices, especially when used community-wide, are saving homes and lives. We hope to hear more from River Place and other Texas communities about how they are faring during this devastating fire season.