'Only a matter of time': Texas FFs train to fight WUI fires in larger cities

Austin ranked fifth among metropolitan areas in the country most at risk of wildfires


Heather Osbourne
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin firefighters last week participated in a trailblazing training program designed to better protect homes from widespread wildfire devastation, classes that local wildfire experts say will save lives when flames threaten the area.

Randy Denzer, vice president of the Austin Firefighters Association, said he was one of several wildfire experts across the nation who came together seven years ago to develop the new training exercises.

Firefighters practice tactics to manage and steer away fire as they participate in training Tuesday in West Austin.
Firefighters practice tactics to manage and steer away fire as they participate in training Tuesday in West Austin. (Photo/TNS)

The classes taught to two dozen Austin firefighters last week were the final of five beta tests needed before the program could be approved by the International Association of Fire Fighters. The program will now be taught to firefighters in high-risk areas such as California and even parts of Canada.

"It's the latest and greatest thing," Denzer said Thursday. "It's been a long time in the works, and Austin Fire will be the largest municipal fire department in the country at this point to have this training."

The latest analysis by CoreLogic, an online property data service, ranked Austin fifth among metropolitan areas in the country most at risk of wildfires. The four areas above Austin in the study are all in California.

Two firefighters — known for their work managing three of California's most catastrophic blazes — were invited by local officials in January 2020 to assess Austin's risk of widespread wildfires. The duo called Austin's risk of mass wildfire devastation "scary," comparing the dense vegetation and triple-digit temperatures to California's and urging city leaders to act fast.

The City Council a few months later voted to adopt a set of rules called the Austin Wildland-Urban Interface Code, with ignition-resistant materials and landscape requirements for areas most at risk for widespread wildfires.

Those rules, for which enforcement began in January, are only for those building new homes or remodeling structures in high-risk areas.

Austin's WUI Code mirrors the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code but has some modifications to fit what local leaders were comfortable enforcing.

"We are eventually going to have a large, disastrous fire on the west side," Denzer said Thursday. "It's going to happen. It's only a matter of time.

"We don't want anybody to die when this thing does finally happen. We need to do whatever is in our power to try to minimize the effects of a major WUI fire on the west side."

A firefighter sprays an area labeled "fire" during a simulated wildfire exercise in the Jester Estates neighborhood in West Austin on Tuesday. The program is one of the first in the country to focus on urban interface firefighting.
A firefighter sprays an area labeled "fire" during a simulated wildfire exercise in the Jester Estates neighborhood in West Austin on Tuesday. The program is one of the first in the country to focus on urban interface firefighting. (Photo/TNS)

The two dozen Austin firefighters who participated in the training last week received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which paid for the courses. On its website, FEMA says it is supporting wildfire response across the country.

Denzer estimates that it will cost $300,000 to put every Austin firefighter through the 16-hour course, which will be taught by the ones who attended the training last week.

City Council Member Alison Alter, whose District 10 encompasses a large swath of West Austin that includes the Bull Creek greenbelt and areas along Lake Austin, has continued to voice her concern about wildfire risk in Austin. She has promised to help raise the money to put all Austin firefighters through the training, according to Denzer.

Because Travis County had such a rainy spring, the threat of wildfires in West Austin has increased even more, Denzer said. He explained that because dense vegetation has continued to grow, it has a greater risk of igniting once plants and trees dry out in the August heat.

"When we look at some of these megafires in California, they're losing 10,000 structures," Denzer said. "If we lose even 2,000 or 3,000 homes, it's going to have a devastating effect for our city."

©2021 www.statesman.com. Visit statesman.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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