USA — In 1984, when a wildfire blackened 900 acres of Bastrop County’s Tahitian Village, residents counted themselves lucky. The subdivision was early in its development and so sparsely populated that only six homes were lost.
Noting the buildup of flammable grasses and shrubs and the narrow roads and steep terrain that made maneuvering difficult for firefighting equipment, officials declared the event a wake-up call to wildfire awareness.
Nearly 25 years later, when they wrote a comprehensive Community Wildfire Protection Plan under the guidance of the Texas Forest Service, Bastrop officials identified 70 subdivisions at critical risk of wildfire where it would be dangerous for firefighters to work. Sweeping fire mitigation measures were proposed.
In 2009, a combination of gusty winds and concentrations of grass, pine needles and brush baked crackly dry by a historic “entrenched drought” kindled Bastrop County’s Wilderness Ridge fire, which charred 1,500 acres and burned dozens of homes and businesses.
A state Forest Service review called the disaster, at the time Central Texas’ worst fire, an uncommon “result of perfect storm conditions.”
Last year, when the Sunset Advisory Commission reviewed the performance of the Forest Service, Bastrop County’s top emergency management official urged the agency to offer greater fire prevention help to communities where residential growth abuts the backcountry and fire danger was greatest.
The series of fires that broke out in the Bastrop area this month and killed two people, destroyed 1,400 homes and upended the lives of countless residents may have been unexpected in scope and in their ferocity. Yet to anyone who has been paying attention, the potential of a massive fire such as Austin-area residents have witnessed billowing to the east could hardly be called a surprise.
“Extreme wildfire behavior as we’ve experienced over the last decade is what we can continue to expect,” the head of the Forest Service wrote to the Legislature before the 2009 session. Citing the state’s stubborn drought, he added: “Even with occasional rain events, we can expect … an increase in the number and severity of wildfires, perhaps unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Texas.”
“We have known about, and anticipated, these incidences,” added state Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado.
Wildfires had already consumed more than 3.6 million acres in Texas this year before the Bastrop fire broke out. No one disputes that nature set the stage for the current disaster. August was the hottest single month in Austin history. June through August was the state’s warmest summer on record. The drought is also unprecedented: Texas is in the midst of the worst one-year dry period in its history.
Yet if nature set the stage, experts say, human policies made the state more flammable.
The fault line
Planners in rural communities have limited authority to compel landowners to make their homes and properties less likely to ignite. In some locations, critics say, the area’s commitment to preserving endangered species habitat has resulted in a dangerous buildup of on-the-ground fuels. Controlled burns, used to reduce such tinder, have become less common. The increasing use of gentleman-rancher-friendly tax breaks have also allowed flammable grasses and shrubs to grow more than in the past.
Where the developments and the brush meet is the fault line of wildfire danger known to fire experts as the “wildland-urban interface.”
Not only do humans ignite the vast majority of wildfires, their presence demands that firefighters and equipment rush to the scene to protect life and property.
Between 2000 and 2010, Williamson County’s population grew 69 percent; Hays County’s ballooned 61 percent. Bastrop County swelled from about 58,000 residents in 2000 to more than 74,000 last year.
A count by Metrostudy, a Texas-based housing information service, shows 2,227 subdivision homes built in Bastrop County over that time and more than 15,000 in Hays County.
Each time a subdivision replaces a field, the state’s fire hazard climbs incrementally higher.
From a fire prevention officer’s perspective, how these communities on the edge are built and maintained matters. Less flammable materials, wider roads and rules about keeping vegetation away from structures all reduce risk of a destructive fire.
Six years ago, lawmakers in California expanded from 30 to 100 feet the perimeter rural homeowners living in unincorporated areas — about a third of the state — legally had to keep clear to protect their homes from the cycle of devastating wildfires that has whipped through the state.
Last year, legislators added more laws requiring homes built in rural areas to meet strict fire-resistant standards “not just to resist direct flame impingement, but to repel burning embers, as well,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for CalFire, the state’s firefighting agency.
The rules require vents to be closed, decks skirted and eaves covered — measures learned through painful and repeated lessons.
“Much of what Texas is experiencing now, California has experienced much more often,” Berlant said.
Justice Jones, a fire prevention specialist with the Texas Forest Service, said: “We plan for hurricanes and floods. We respond to wildfires, but we’re not used to planning for them.”
Unlike in Texas cities, which can compel developers to use fire-resistant materials and install fire safety equipment, regulators in unincorporated counties, where much of the rapid growth is occurring, have much less authority.
In its 2008 Community Wildfire Protection Plan, Bastrop officials specifically identified the use of flammable building and landscaping materials as potential threats. Another local risk: “Inadequate or non-existent wildfire defensible space around homes.”
Yet, Travis County Fire Marshal Hershel Lee said, rural planners have no real legal authority to require landowners to take steps that would inhibit the spread of wildfires on their property.
“This is Texas, and local landowners are pretty much free to control their own land,” Lee said. “I’m not saying that is a bad thing, but the drawback is that we are now in a very populated county. We are not what you would think of as a sparsely populated area where your actions don’t have any impact on your neighbors.”
Developers have resisted fire-prevention rules because developers have to play by the market’s rules, said Harry Savio, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin. “The land in this region is pretty pricey, so home builders try to make maximum use of it. Trees add value to the house, so you end up squeezing houses closer and closer to what I would call more native areas.”
Without laws requiring residents to uniformly fireproof their property, a community’s safety must rest on the cooperation of dozens, or even hundreds of neighbors independently watching out for the public good.
“Defensible space doesn’t just protect your home; it protects the neighborhood,” Berlant said.