In August 2020, the 400-acre Trails Fire west of Horseshoe Bay threatened more than 30 homes. The community’s proactive steps through the Firewise program kept damage and destruction to a minimum. Courtesy photo
Wildfire season is here, and officials are asking Highland Lakes residents to take steps to protect their homes and property through Firewise Communities USA, which is managed by the Texas A&M Forest Service in the Lone Star State. The program provides information that property owners can use to protect their homes, buildings, land, and more, said Llano County Emergency Management coordinator Gilbert Bennett.
“The Firewise program from the Texas (A&M) Forest Service is a great program to promote this time of year to the community as we start to dry out,” he said.
The program was developed to help communities such as a subdivision, or even a city, prepare for wildfires and mitigate potential damage. As more Texans move into areas classified as wildland urban interface, spaces where homes and structures intermix with wildland vegetation, the potential of devastating wildfires increases. Officials have identified more than 14,000 communities within the state vulnerable to “potentially devastating fires within the wildland urban interface,” according to a Texas A&M Forest Service report.
In 2011, Texas suffered a year like no other when it came to wildfires. The forest service reported more than 4 million acres and more than 2,900 homes burned due to wildfires that year. This included the 67 homes lost in the Spicewood Fire, which burned approximately 6,500 acres in Burnet and Travis counties.
An example of the program’s success in limiting damage is the August 2020 Trails Fire west of Horseshoe Bay. The fire burned about 400 acres, but the Trails subdivision is a Firewise community and had taken steps to protect homes and structures. The fire, which threatened about 37 structures, only destroyed one outside of the Firewise community.
Part of the Firewise program has property owners create a defensible space around their homes where grasses, trees, and brush are cut back to curtail fuel for fires. During the Trails Fire, fire officials reported watching a blaze reach the edge of a property and basically stop due to the lack of fuels such as brush and high grasses.
While the Firewise program is aimed at communities, individual property owners can use the same steps to protect their homes and structures.
Bennett outlined a few steps, including creating two zones around a home. The first zone would extend 30 feet from the house or structure. In this area, Bennett advises removing dead and dying vegetation, trimming trees, removing leaves from gutters, moving wood piles away from the area, and eliminating “ladder fuels,” vegetation that starts at the ground and climbs up trees.
Zone 2 would extend 30-100 feet from the home or structure. In this area, property owners should mow the grass and trim trees. A good idea is to remove low branches to reduce the chance of a fire jumping from the grass to the lower limbs. This reduces the fuels available for fires.
The idea, Bennett pointed out, is to create a defensible space or buffer area around a home or structure to stop an advancing wildfire.
As for ranches or large swathes of a land, Gilbert recommended those owners and managers:
maintain a 30-foot barrier clear of burnable materials around fields and structures;
inform the local fire department about access roads, water sources, fence lines, and preferred wildfire suppression tactics;
establish contingency plans for feeding livestock and create a plan to relocate livestock if fire is imminent and time permits;
and plan different routes to leave the property, as wildfires may make the usual route unsafe.
Officials also recommend people have an escape plan, including what to grab, and practice it.
Communities interested in the Firewise program can contact Kari Hines, the Texas A&M Forest Service Firewise Communities coordinator, at email@example.com or check with their local fire department.