Opinion: Wildfires Are Coming to Central Texas. Be Prepared.
As we move into the summer, a drought has enveloped Texas, increasing the risk of wildfires in the Austin area
By Vi Burgess and Evelyn Syau, Fri., May 20, 2022
In 2011, the most destructive wildfire in Texas' recent history burned over 34,000 acres of land and killed two people, right down Highway 71 in Bastrop. Wildfires are undeniably increasing in number and magnitude, yet most of us associate the fires with Colorado and California. However, Texas A&M Forest Service reported 348,403 acres of land in Texas burned in March 2022 alone. Although Texas has historically been subject to tornadoes and hurricanes, fires are the latest manifestations of climate change.
As medical students, we believe Central Texas residents should be cognizant about the effects that climate change is having on wildfires, and how they impact the health of children, the elderly, and the medically vulnerable. We should all actively support wildfire preparedness through fire-resistant infrastructure and community initiatives.
Wildfires are detrimental to health; we know that smoke has been implicated in reduced lung function, bronchitis, asthma exacerbation, heart failure, and premature death. Particulate matter from wildfires may be up to 10 times more harmful than any other kind of air pollutants. This is especially true for medically vulnerable populations, but also true for others such as outdoor workers and those in direct proximity to the fires.
Additionally, children and the elderly are more likely to live in areas with higher wildfire potential. As a result, they are at higher risk for post-disaster stressors and respiratory issues, as well as infectious diseases due to crowded emergency housing and contaminated water systems. Children and the older population are also vulnerable to transportation and mobility issues during wildfire evacuations, further increasing disparities.
As Austin grows, we must be cognizant of the health effects of wildfires on vulnerable residents, which include both long-term Austinites and new arrivals. With the influx of new residents into Austin, more people are living in regions with elevated wildfire potential. In fact, 89% of Austin's fastest-growing tracts are located within these areas.
In 2020, Austin became the first major city in Texas to adopt a wildland-urban interface (WUI) code, which serves as an audit of transition zones between wildlands and developed areas. Under this audit, all new construction projects in the WUI area must include fire-resistant construction features, such as double-paned glass windows and safe storage of combustible materials. This is a safe and smart addition to our building codes, as more than 60% of current structures in Austin are within 1.5 miles of the WUI. However, this does not apply to older buildings and residential areas, where higher proportions of lower income groups and people of color are more likely to live.
After the code went into effect in January of 2021, however, it has faced rollbacks in implementation. The main limitations are the oversight required to implement the WUI code, which requires buy-in from multiple stakeholders (i.e., municipal governments and city commissioners). We acknowledge that these are costly and time-intensive improvements, but the health of our community must come first. As community members, we should demand the widespread implementation of safe building standards throughout the city.
Community outreach remains a challenge due to the limited reach of vulnerable populations, who may lack access to online resources and educational materials. The Austin Area Firewise Alliance is working to examine existing wildfire policies and provide specialized training for people to become qualified wildfire risk evaluators for their neighborhood. Expansion of the alliance's operations, ideally through financial support from the city, is an important next step.
Moving forward, cross-sector partnerships and consistent outreach efforts are crucial for addressing the disproportionate impact that wildfires have on people of lower household incomes, children, and the elderly. As Austin continues to grow as a city, this is a unique opportunity to incorporate wildfire-resistant infrastructure and enhance the city's wildfire preparedness as a whole.
Vi Burgess and Evelyn Syau are medical students at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.