EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
MARBLE FALLS — The chain saws ripped through underbrush and cedars as Marble Falls firefighters and Texas A&M Forest Service crews cleared away a swath of overgrown brush, cedar, and vegetation alongside the Marble Falls High School auditorium.
The depth and thickness of the brush is deceiving while standing on the driveway that encircles the high school, 2101 Mustang Drive, but has firefighters and forest service crews cut into the vegetation, it becomes evident how thick and dangerous the undergrowth had become.
“Yeah, people don’t realize how quick something like this grows up and how thick it is,” said Marble Falls Fire Rescue Chief Russell Sander. “It can just become fuel for a fire.”
Sander, a Marble Falls Fire Rescue crew, Marble Falls Area Volunteer Department firefighters, and Marble Falls Independent School District maintenance staff swarmed through the brushy growth on March 14 along with four members of the Texas A&M Forest Service. The object was to create a defensible space adjacent to the auditorium, first to protect the structure but to also offer a place to educate the general public about fire mitigation.
“We’re clearing this scrub brush to create a defensible space,” Sander said.
A “defensible space” is an area around a structure that has been cleared of thick brush and growth and provides a space with limited fuel for any encroaching wildfire. Fire officials hope area homeowners and businesses take note of the MFHS project and apply it to their own locations.
“We recommend you clear about thirty feet from the home, but as you go out, you can allow some height,” Sander said. “What this does is if a wildfire is approaching the house, it will have less fuels to burn and protect the house.”
Those high bushes, shrubs coming right up to a wall, and even tree branches rubbing up against a home or building serve as potential fuels for a fire.
“A lot of people are coming out to places like (Marble Falls), moving into wildland urban interfaces, and that means we’re seeing neighborhoods and developments going into areas with lots of (vegetation) growth,” said Jake Gosschalk, a Texas A&M Forest Service Wildland Urban Interface specialist. “What we’re trying to do is encourage people to create these defensible spaces to protect their homes.”
Sander said crews have reported wildfires slipping past homes with defensible spaces, leaving them untouched, while destroying nearby homes without those spaces.
“If there is a wildfire, and homes and businesses have a defensible space, we can focus our resources and efforts on fighting the fire and not protecting your home,” Sander said.
Creating a defensible space isn’t about stripping all vegetation down to a level comparable to a golf green. Gosschalk said homeowners can still have a nice landscape with a defensible space.
“People can come out here and see what we mean by ‘defensible space,’” said Sander about the Marble Falls High School project. “We’d like to hang a banner (at the site) to explain what this is and why it’s important.”
He also pointed out it’s not enough to clear a defensible space once; you have to maintain it, which is something MFISD maintenance staff will do at the high school location.
Marble Falls Fire Rescue and the Texas A&M Forest Service are developing a community wildfire protection plan for the city with steps it can take to prepare for wildfires and protect homes, businesses, and buildings. The fire department will be reaching out to communities and neighborhoods within Marble Falls to discuss wildfire mitigation and what residents can do to help. Contact Marble Falls Fire Rescue at (830) 693-4060 to learn more about this initiative. People can also go to firewise.org or txforestservice.tamu.edu for information on wildfire prevention and mitigation.
As Sander paused between carrying brush to the wood chipper, he noted the lack of significant rainfall the area has experienced during the past few months, setting up dry vegetation and undergrowth.
“It looks like we’re headed for another dry summer,” he said. “The best time to prepare for wildfires is now.”