City looks for ideas to prevent fires

City looks for ideas to prevent fires  

04 October 2011

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USA —  With budgets tightening their grip on City services, and dry conditions only getting worse, Austin officials are searching for new and additional ways to prevent wildfires from spreading.

“I think it’s important to talk to folks on the West Coast, folks that have been dealing with wildfire problems for decades,” said Harry Evans, Chief of Staff for the Austin Fire Department . “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Let’s look at the knowledge and experience that’s out there and try to tap into that.”

Evans, along with officials with Austin Energy , gave a presentation on the wildfire threat to the commissioners at the Public Safety Commission meeting Monday evening.

“What we’re talking about is the wildfire problem isn’t contained just by the Austin Fire Department. It contains many jurisdictions, lots of different people and Austin Energy is apparently one of those stakeholders we need,” he said.

At the meeting, it was decided that the Austin Fire Department should work with Austin Energy to help come up with more fire prevention solutions, so they could possibly be presented to the Austin City Council .

“It’s a real challenge for us right now, because we have a typical staff day to day. But, because of the red flag days we’re staffing up additional units as a force multiplier. There’s a cost to that,” he said. “We’re always sensitive to the funding issue. That’s a concern for us now.”

While the budget cycle has just started for the Austin Fire Department and funding could be an issue later down the road, more ideas are needed to continue preventing fires in the City of Austin. One of the most developed idea is bringing more communities together to help respond to each others needs.

“Just last week I was in a meeting with a bunch of partners from the county and they have the same concerns,” he said. “We’ve all committed to working together.”

“There’s a heightened sense in the community and we’ve received a lot of calls from customers who want us to come take a look at the power lines,” said Cheryl Mele with Austin Energy.

Austin Energy is facing its own sense of challenges, recently having to slash $500,000 from their $9 million budget for tree trimming services.

“We’ve had a long-standing program since 1997, in fact where we have systematically pruned the trees back in our territory from our distribution lines,” Mele said.

50 crews currently try and prune trees to be about four to eight feet from power lines. It takes about five to six years for them to cycle through all the trees along those lines in the City of Austin. The cuts could take away about two to three of those crews.

Now, city agencies and groups are starting to band together to keep wildfires from threatening the city.

“But like I told the commissioners , it didn’t get this way in two months,” Evans said. “This is over the course of decades that the wildfire problem has grown. So, it’s going to take awhile to fix it.”

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