Be It Flood or Fire, Austin Is Preparing for Disasters to Come

Austin residents must be prepared for hell or high water

The devastating wildfires in Bastrop, Sept. 6, 2011 (Photo by Sandy Carson)

As you read this, half of Travis County is classified under high wildfire risk. Despite this Tuesday's much-needed storm, the county has been under a burn ban since May 11, the default mode that we reset to every couple of weeks. Whatever the current weather, local emergency managers and elected officials alike continue to hammer home the same sentiment: It's not if, but when, an out-of-control, California-sized wildfire could ravage Central Texas.

But if we get enough rain to avert that possibility in the long term, much of the region – in fact, some of the same places with the greatest wildfire risk – could instead be ravaged by flooding. What does it all mean? Preparing for doomsday is a full-time job that requires all hands on deck.

What’s a Woo-ee?

In late March, the National Weather Service issued what's called a red flag warning for the Austin and San Antonio metro areas, indicating increased wildfire risk due to dry conditions and high winds. Texas, along with other Southwest states, has experienced lengthening periods of drought due to climate change. According to the metrics used by fire departments to gauge wildfire risk – a formula known as the Energy Release Component that factors in both weather conditions and the amount of vegetation available to fuel a wildfire – 2022 has already exceeded all previous records in the Eastern Hill Country, or the western half of the Austin metro area.

How many people and properties are in the path of such a fire? A whole lot, not just in Austin but all over Texas. According to the risk assessment company Verisk, Texas is second only to California in the number of properties in danger. Most of these are located in what's called the wildland-urban interface, or WUI (pronounced "woo-ee"), which is just what it sounds like: where the city meets the country. The WUI covers 36% of the land area of the city of Austin and 59% of Travis County; while it's mostly on the west side, it does include river and creek bottomlands to the east.

This vast terrain has lots of brush and vegetation – including Ashe juniper, or "cedar," which is exceptionally hazardous when it dries out and then catches fire. Embers from such fires can travel up to a quarter-mile before burning themselves out, which is how a prescribed burn near Bastrop earlier this year sparked fires that brought back painful memories of the 2011 Labor Day blazes in the same area, the most destructive in Texas history.

The Bastrop County Complex fire, as it's officially known, was set off by a power line knocked down by a tree that was blown down by the high winds; ultimately, Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative and its tree-trimming vendor ended up settling dozens of lawsuits, including a $5 million payout to the city, county, and school district for lost property value. In 2019, City Council Member Alison Alter requested an audit of Austin's wildfire preparedness, which delivered a similar verdict: Austin Energy lines and the trees around them pose the greatest threat, particularly west of MoPac – in Alter's District 10 and in Districts 6 and 8 to its north and south.

That's resulted in concrete changes being implemented now, Alter told the Chronicle. The areas of highest risk in D10 should be mitigated by the end of this year, and "I've been working with [AE] to accelerate that work all across the city," she said. You may remember that part of the cascade of disasters caused by Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 likewise involved downed power lines on the west side, knocked out by ice-heavy tree limbs that left large parts of D10 without power (and water) both before and after the blackout caused by the near-failure of the Texas power grid.

This interactive map produced by the city allows residents to search their address to pull up a chart including their wildfire risk score, classification, and other key preparedness information

Being Better Builders

Clearing these low-hanging branches is the low-hanging fruit, if you will, of wildfire risk management. The most important long-term mitigation strategy is to adopt specific building codes for properties in the WUI, as California has done statewide beginning in the 1980s. In Texas, a statewide mandate wouldn't fly, so it's up to each locality to figure out what to do on its own. Austin was the first major city in Texas to adopt a local WUI building code, integrated into the Land Development Code in 2020.

Austin Fire Marshal Tom Vocke explains that Austin's new code is in fact more stringent than WUI rules elsewhere; for example, most WUI codes establish a brush clearing buffer in that quarter-mile "ember zone," but in Austin that buffer area stretches for a mile and a half. Even with that extra room, "[We] opted to not push brush mitigation as a solution, [but] to focus on ignition-resistant construction as our primary means of providing protection, because brush grows back," Vocke said. "If we can get ignition­-resistant construction in place, we know we have 20-30 years of good protection for the home," said Vocke.

"Ignition-resistant construction" includes not only the choice of building materials, but reinforcing doors, windows, roofs, and ductwork to keep embers out and installing spark arresters on chimneys. (In much of California, wood-burning fireplaces are not allowed at all, both for fire risk mitigation and to improve air quality.) But these WUI code provisions only apply to new construction; there is no way to mandate the "hardening" of existing homes.

The WUI code also addresses evacuation routes, particularly in the many cul-de-sac subdivisions and gated country club communities on Austin's western edge. Alter's Council colleague Mackenzie Kelly owes her 2020 victory over Jimmy Flannigan to neighbors in one such community, River Place, who opposed Flannigan's efforts to enable multifamily density on that one evacuation route. "We will not be able to build additional evacuation routes in communities that are one way in and one way out," says Alter. "That was faulty planning long ago. We can make sure that any new developments that are in the WUI absolutely have multiple exits.

"We experienced a low-probability high-risk event with Winter Storm Uri," she continued. "We need to treat wildfire as a high-probability high-risk event. And there is so much more that we need to be doing as a community, city, and county to be prepared to mitigate our risk."

People Need to Participate

Effective emergency preparedness, whether for wildfire or flood or winter storm or anything else, requires the public to do its part. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group lays out three overarching recommendations for mitigating risk:

1) Restoring and maintaining resilient landscapes.

2) Creating fire-adapted communities.

3) Responding to wildfires effectively.

The WUI code addresses the first of these. As for the second, Travis County currently has 20 Firewise Communities – a program of the National Fire Protection Association that certifies towns and neighborhoods with a wildfire preparedness plan – out of about 90 in the entire state. They include the entire cities of West Lake Hills (since 2008), Lago Vista (since 2011), and Jonestown (since 2012). Another 58 neighborhoods are "engaged" in the process of becoming Firewise, according to local fire officials.

Comanche Trail, overlooking Hippie Hol­low along Lake Travis, is not one of these yet, but County Commissioner Brigid Shea, whose Precinct 2 includes the north shore of the lake as far as Volente, cites the neighborhood fire evacuation drill her office helped put on there as a model of community participation. Shea says the county doesn't have the staff or budget to organize these drills on its own: "People might say, 'Why not pick a bigger neighborhood or a more diverse neighborhood?' Part of it was, a lot of people [out there] were retired, a lot of them had management experience. And they were willing to do it, and they had the time to do it. We leveraged their experience and their leisure time to create this."

The third prong of preparedness, the actual firefighting response, is also getting a makeover as a result of Alter's 2019 call for an audit. Most urban fire departments, including Austin's, train to respond to residential structure fires; they're unfamiliar with the specialized techniques required for wildfire response, and (again, unlike California) the state doesn't have the tools and resources to back them up, short of deploying the National Guard, who are even less well trained.

Austin Fire has had a wildfire division since 2012, but it's been focused on public engagement (including the Firewise program) and fuel mitigation – e.g., clearing brush. As a result of Alter's initiative, for the past six months the entire Austin Fire Department has been undergoing Respond­ing to the Interface training, a program launched in 2019 with federal funding by the International Association of Fire Fighters, of which the Austin Firefighters Association is Local 975; former AFA Vice President Randy Denzer helped develop and beta-test the training, and Austin is the largest municipal fire service in the country to use it as a department. Last year, AFD created its first wildfire battalion, which will undergo even more specialized training that could take another year or two before it's ready to deploy as a first response.

Much of Travis County's wildfire risk is concentrated not in areas served by the Austin Fire Department, but by the county's 14 Emergency Service Districts, each created ad hoc by the state and with its own rules, practices, and codes. "It's not a perfect setup," says County Commissioner Brigid Shea.

But Beyond the City Limits …

Unlike Austin's Emergency Medical Services Department, Austin Fire does not operate countywide, nor does Travis County have its own fire department to work with AFD the way the Travis County Sheriff's Office works with Austin police. Much of the WUI lies within the domains of 14 separate emergency services districts, or ESDs, created by the Texas Legislature over the years to bridge this gap and now often "their own fiefdoms," as Shea puts it. "They have their own fire chiefs, their own taxing authorities, and neither the counties nor the cities can tell them what to do, really."

Some of the ESDs overlap. Some are non­contiguous, such as ESD 4, served by AFD by interlocal agreement and including random bits of the Austin fringe north of the river, from Jester Estates in the west to Hornsby Bend in the east. Some include cities that don't have their own fire departments, such as Pflugerville. Some have their own fire codes. "It's not a perfect setup," Shea said understatedly, "to have all the wildfire response for a large urban county that has a very high wildfire rating to be managed by 14 independent fire districts."

Austin does, however, control 911 dispatch for the entire county, and AFD has opted into automatic-aid agreements with all the Travis County ESDs and some in Williamson County as well, meaning if Austin's fire stations or equipment are closest to a fire, AFD will respond first. However, citing differences with how AFD is run, Hutto (WilCo ESD 3), Pflugerville (Travis ESD 2), and Manor (Travis ESD 12) have opted out of these auto-aid agreements. "If they had a large brush fire, we would not automatically send units over into Pflugerville," says AFD Assistant Chief of Operations Brandon Wade. While the department is considering offering RTI training to the ESDs, right now, said Wade, "We're trying to get our own members through the program, and it's going to take quite some time."

Flooding on Lamar, May 25, 2015 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

What About the Floods?

Before the Bastrop County Complex fire in 2011 – and a simultaneous blaze in Steiner Ranch, west of River Place, that was much less damaging but equally frightening – most Austinites didn't think that much about their fire risk. They are well aware, however, of the opposite risk here in Flash Flood Alley, the one type of natural disaster Austin encounters regularly and very destructively.

Kevin Shunk, floodplain administrator for the city of Austin and its liaison with the National Flood Insurance Program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says unlike wildfire risk, which is widespread but not everywhere, "flood risk is spread throughout the entire city. It's all over the place. There are certainly areas that are higher-risk, comparing the two geologic parts of the city, with the east side of Austin being more of a flatland [with a] wider floodplain." Shunk's job is to identify flood risks to review, devise projects to mitigate them, and help with community outreach and education. He says the main "tools in his toolbox" to mitigate risk are buyouts of high-risk neighborhoods and keeping up with stormwater infrastructure, which is the job of Shunk's Watershed Protection Department.

The highest-profile buyouts have been in the Onion Creek watershed, Austin's largest. After disastrous floods in 2013 and 2015 (each time on Halloween), the city purchased more than 800 properties in the watershed, particularly at its eastern end near where Onion Creek enters the Colo­rado. "But that doesn't mean that we favor that alternative over any other," said Shunk. Watershed Protection also builds detention ponds to "hold water such that the downstream system can handle [it, and] reduce the rate that it's going to flow downstream." One such regional pond is being built at Baker School in Hyde Park, now the headquarters of the Alamo Drafthouse.

New developments are also required to install stormwater detention "to make sure they're not flooding their neighbors, basically," said Shunk. As for existing neighborhoods, and as with the WUI code, older areas like Tarrytown that were built before the floodplain regulations don't have this infrastructure; the rules would only kick in on properties that are being rezoned or subdivided. "When an individual lot redevelops, if they're just putting a house on the same lot," Shunk said, "they would not have to put detention on that property" – even if the new house is much bigger and increases impervious cover on the lot, and thus the risk of downstream flooding.

Floodplain regulations also require safe access: "You have to be able to walk from a building to the right-of-way [i.e., the nearest street], all at an elevation at least one foot above the 100-year floodplain," Shunk said, which helps both residents and responders in an evacuation scenario. The city's emergency managers will ask Watershed Protec­tion, "'How high is the water going to get and where's it gonna go? And how long is it going to be at that elevation?' That would help them plan for an evacuation."

A new statewide flood planning process initiated by the Texas Legislature is mapping flood regions across Texas with the input of local experts like those at Water­shed Protection. The resulting plan could unlock funds for risk reduction projects needed in Austin along Shoal and Waller creeks and along the misleadingly named Dry Creek in Highland Hills in Alter's D10, as well as more citywide infrastructure and buyouts. "We'll have a list of projects, and that can hopefully help to plan on possible funding," said Shunk.

Both flood and fire risk are increased by the Austin area's boom, as we continue to build closer to the WUI and the 100-year floodplain and weather becomes more unpredictable due to climate change. Risk mitigation therefore is shared across all of Austin's communities, whether we like it or not. "We need to step up and be prepared for a totally different kind of disaster planning," said Alter. "One where we can't just call on our neighbor next door to help us. We have to make sure that we have resilience within our community, within our system. So that we survive whatever comes our way."

Fire and Flood Information

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