Will Austin's New Wildfire Code Be Enough?

"The risk is bad"

Wildfires in North Texas (Courtesy of Texas National Guard)

This summer, Austin firefighter Randy Denzer hosted two California firefighters who were in town for a statewide symposium. On the way to dinner, he drove up Loop 360 toward RM 2222 and onto Spice­wood Springs Road, passing thousands of rooftops among the rolling green slopes and ridgetops. Just months before, Denzer's guests had fought the Camp Fire, the worst in California history, which killed 85 people and destroyed almost 20,000 structures. What they saw in West Austin was alarming.

CoreLogic’s 2019 Wildfire Risk Report ranked Austin as the fifth-highest metro area at risk of wildfire in the western United States, with only California cities preceding it.

"I wish I could have filmed their expressions," recalls Denzer, who spoke to the Chronicle as a vice president of the Austin Firefighters Association. "They were in absolute amazement at the level of risk we have. It's not something where [just] I'm saying the risk is bad, it's something where people who have been there, done that are saying that the risk is bad – really bad."

Council Member Alison Alter, whose District 10 includes much of Austin's western edge, has likewise described the risk as "enormous" and says her constituents are "absolutely aware" of it. In fact, CoreLogic's 2019 Wildfire Risk Report ranked Austin as the fifth-highest metro area at risk of wildfire in the western United States, with only California cities preceding it. Denzer, a battalion chief with the Austin Fire Depart­ment who serves on the International Assoc­­ia­tion of Fire Fighters' Wildland Fire Fighter Task Force, explains that this is due to increasing vegetative fuel, which grows prolifically during wet springs and then dries out in hot, rainless summers; the location of homes near undeveloped areas (referred to as "wildlands"); and inadequate management.

The threat is heightened in West Austin because of flora and topography that encourage fire to spread more quickly. The homes most in danger are those in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), because, as the CoreLogic research puts it, "Just as hurricanes often build in strength as they move over the open ocean towards the coast, wildfires build in intensity as they roll through the wildlands and enter the WUI." In Austin, a staggering 61% of homes (on all sides of town, not just west) currently lie within the WUI.

Denzer and AFA President Bob Nicks are hoping City Council will soon adopt a pending WUI Code, which would give AFD the authority to enforce building, construction, and vegetation standards to improve wildland firefighting operations and reduce structure ignition and the spread of fire. Austin would be the first city in Texas to have such a code, and many hope that other small cities in Travis County will follow suit. According to a June AFD presentation, the Camp Fire destroyed 82% of structures built before California's WUI code, compared with 49% of structures built after. Fire­fight­ers "are sworn to protect the citizens of Austin," Nicks says. "We have a duty to speak out on this item. It does affect firefighter safety, but it's an item of public concern and we think it needs to be taken more seriously."

Unfortunately, progress has been slow since Council voted in 2016 to direct the city to develop a WUI code. More than three years later, it still hasn't been finalized or voted on, even though an international WUI model code already exists and AFD, which declined the Chronicle's request for an interview, just needs to customize it for Aus­tin. While there's been some recent movement, it's been accompanied by rumors of the process dragging into 2020.

On Oct. 2, the Building and Fire Code Board of Appeals – the city's technical board responsible for making a recommendation to Council – discussed the WUI code but put off action until its Oct. 23 meeting or later in order to clear up the draft code's language on ignition-resistant and fire-rated materials. It's been on the board's plate for almost a year, going through several stakeholder meetings handled by AFD. If the board eventually recommends adoption of the code, it would then go through a public comment period before a Council vote.

If adopted by Council, the applicable code provisions would be incorporated into the new Land Development Code Revision. Alter tells the Chronicle that she strongly supports adoption of the WUI code. "It's not a matter of if Austin will be hit by another bout of wildfires – it's a matter of when," she says. "If we're not doing what we can to protect Austin residents, then we're not doing our jobs as city leaders. It's irresponsible to continue to build in the WUI without the code in place."

While the draft code will likely be made public within weeks, AFD has declined to share it with the Chronicle and has asked the Texas attorney general to exempt its disclosure under a public information request. According to an earlier draft of the code, released in May, WUI regulations would apply to most new structures built after code adoption near wildlands of at least 40 acres. These would be rated for hazard severity based on their wildland proximity, surrounding topography, and type of surrounding vegetative fuel; this rating would determine the extent of structure standards to be applied for fire safety (mainly, dealing with ignition-resistant construction materials).

The code also requires that structures, depending on their hazard severity, have "defensible space": buffers between surrounding vegetation that can slow or stop the spread of wildfire. This language has been watered down in Austin's draft from the fuel modification requirements of the international WUI code, calling instead for vaguely defined maintenance of trees and ground cover. While Nicks and Denzer stress the importance of having stronger provisions for brush abatement and fuel mitigation, a staff comment on the May draft notes, "Best practices for maintaining defensible space beyond this code would remain the responsibility of the property owner."

Importantly, AFD is recommending that Austin's code, unlike the international model code, not apply to existing homes and structures unless they pose distinct hazards to life or property. Nicks and Denzer say this is a major oversight, a concern echoed by the city's Urban Forestry Board and Public Safety Commission. Focusing on new construction only, Nicks says, "doesn't affect any of the risk today. It will affect some of the risk tomorrow. So the code is falling short and not covering its bases." In a June meeting, PSC Vice Chair Rebecca Webber also raised the issue that the code does not address the 29% of land within the WUI that falls within (public or private) preserves. AFD responded that it would need to meet with landowners to discuss those lands' management; it's unclear whether those discussions have taken place. Alter says the city's fiscal year 2020 budget increases resources to mitigate wildfire risk on public lands.

Throughout the development of the code, other stakeholders have voiced concerns. The Home Builders Association of Greater Austin worked with AFD for more than a year on several iterations, focusing on construction methods, defensible space requirements, administrative processes, and the WUI map overlay. HBA-GA is mostly concerned that the cumulative effect will be to make homes within the WUI more expensive, and that reviews and inspections will slow down and further complicate development. But David Glenn, HBA-GA's director of government relations, recognizes "a growing body of data indicating that Austin is at high risk for wildfires" and says the organization's members "will continue to build safe homes for Austin residents."

Environmental groups, meanwhile, worry that a WUI code could lead to excessive tree and vegetation loss and impact wildlife, and many were slow to support a WUI code. The Austin Heritage Tree Foundation and the city's Environmental Commission would like AFD to minimize the risk of "unnecessary" tree removal and damage – particularly on preserves and public land – and has suggested the code emphasize that "hardening the home is more effective than [defensible] space." They also asked that the code allow defensible spaces to include more healthy young trees – preventing removal of trees under 8 inches in diameter – and require more fire-resistant materials on decks and fences in order to preserve nearby trees.

Ultimately, Denzer and Nicks support the adoption of the current WUI code despite its flaws; they say future regulations must call for more thorough wildland fire training for all AFD firefighters (not just a battalion of a few specialists) as well as addressing the current code's significant omissions. The Firewise program, they say, is voluntary, and its adequacy is currently being questioned on a national level. "WUI codes are the teeth, the enforcement of what we need to do," says Denzer. "They create the rules that we need to abide by that actually help us get to that end state, which is to create safer communities. There's gonna come a time when conditions are right for a massive wildfire in West Austin, and we'll be the ones on national news with hundreds if not thousands of homes on the ground."

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