On Sunday, September 4, 2011, the Bastrop County Complex Fire began to burn. The fire consumed over 32,000 acres and destroyed over 1600 structures before it was under control. Located about 25 minutes east of Austin, TX, the fire that raged through the Bastrop area completely devastated county neighborhoods and forests. On Thursday, September 8, 2011, a contact of NFPA’s Public Fire Protection Division reached out and extended an invitation for a representative of NFPA to join him on the investigation of one of the ignition sites of the fire. I was fortunate enough to have the support of NFPA, and I quickly organized travel from Boston to the ignition site by Friday, September 9, 2011. With the assistance of the Texas Forest Service (TFS), I was able to meet with members of the command staff and survey many of the neighborhoods that were affected by the fire. I would return to the area approximately five months later, along with the Technical Committee on Forest and Rural Fire Protection.
The Technical Committee on Forest and Rural Fire Protection is responsible for the development and revision of NFPA documents that pertain to fire protection for rural, suburban, forest, grass, brush, and tundra areas, as well as Class A Foams and gels that are intended for use during wildland and structural fire fighting. These documents include the following:
- NFPA 1141: Standard for Fire Protection Infrastructure for Land Development in Wildland, Rural, and Suburban Areas
- NFPA 1142: Standard on Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Fire Fighting
- NFPA 1143: Standard for Wildland Fire Management
- NFPA 1144: Standard for Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire
- NFPA 1145: Guide for the Use of Class A Foams in Manual Structural Fire Fighting
- NFPA 1150: Standard on Foam Chemicals for Fires in Class A Fuels
The committee intentionally chose Austin, TX as the location for its last meeting in January 2012 due to the proximity to Bastrop County. This particular meeting was for the Report on Proposals (ROP) for NFPA 1143, Standard on Wildland Fire Management, the first of two meetings that take place during the revision of the document.
The Bastrop County Complex Fire was the worst Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) fire in the history of the state of Texas and the committee wanted to seize the opportunity to learn from the event. As a result, the committee arranged to meet with TFS staff to discuss lessons learned, learn about their new data collection methods, and survey the areas affected by the fire. On the first day of the meeting, the committee processed Proposals for NFPA 1143 and was provided with a presentation and overview of the Texas wildfire season by Justice Jones, TFS WUI Program Coordinator.
Jones discussed how weather conditions led Texas into the second longest fire season on record, and explained that conditions may be even worse for the upcoming season. The summer of 2011 was the hottest on record and it was the driest year on record since 1895. The state burned just shy of 4 million acres, lost over 5,600 structures, and managed to save approximately 42,000 structures through firefighting efforts. The committee engaged Jones with discussion regarding the use of resources, financing issues, mitigation efforts, and the proactive steps that the TFS is taking in preparation for future fire seasons.
The following morning, the committee traveled to Bastrop County to conduct a tour of the area, which was lead by Rich Gray, TFS Mitigation and Fuels Program Coordinator II. Gray laid out many of the specifics of the Bastrop fire, including weather conditions, ignition sites, evacuation challenges, and mitigation efforts, before leading the group through many of the affected areas. The committee arrived at the Convention and Exhibit Center, site of the IC post, where we met with multiple members of the Unified Command Staff. Mike Fischer, Bastrop County Emergency Management Director, provided a welcome address and discussed the importance of learning from this type of event in order to preplan for the future.
Karen Ridenour, TFS GIS Specialist II, provided a presentation on the data collection efforts surrounding the Bastrop County Complex Fire. Ridenour explained how TFS staff have been conducting post fire analysis on sample areas within the fire’s foot print through the use of a data collection methodology known as WUI-I and WUI-II. This methodology has been developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in conjunction with the US Forest Service (USFS). There have been similar efforts in other areas of Texas and California, and the case studies will hopefully begin to provide useful information as it pertains to identifying vulnerabilities of communities, neighborhoods, and individual structures at risk. The committee is hopeful that these methods will provide solid information and guidance for the future revisions of NFPA 1141: Standard for Fire Protection Infrastructure for Land Development in Wildland, Rural, and Suburban Areas, and NFPA 1144: Standard for Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire.
Fires in the WUI are a challenge that planners, land developers, government officials, and emergency management personal will continue to face, especially as more homes and communities are developed throughout the country. The only way that we will be prepared for these types of large scale fires is by learning from past experiences. The Texas Forest Service is setting a great example and leading the way by participating in new data collection methods that may change the way we view fires in the WUI, and ultimately allow us to expose vulnerabilities in new and pre-existing developments. The Technical Committee on Forest and Rural Fire Protection is eager to learn from these events, incorporate the information into NFPA standards, and provide the proper guidance for safer living in the WUI.