During September, National Preparedness Month, the Austin Joint Field Office is releasing a series of stories highlighting FEMA’s support of Texas communities as they take steps to reduce or eliminate long-term risk to people and property.
AUSTIN, Texas – On Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011, a firestorm engulfed Bastrop County, Texas, destroying 1,688 homes, burning more than 34,000 acres, and claiming two lives. The Bastrop County Complex Fire was the most devastating wildfire in Texas history and steps are being taken to protect residents and prevent history from repeating itself.
Reducing the amount of vegetative debris that fuels wildfires is one action the county is taking to minimize the fire threat, said Michael Fisher, Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management Coordinator. As dead vegetation and trees accumulates on the ground, it creates a continuous source of fuel. When ignited, the resulting fire burns hotter, spreads faster, lasts longer and covers more ground. When fuel is reduced, fires are less intense.
Fisher said the county decided to reduce this understory fuel using non-traditional mechanical means as opposed to prescribed burning. According to Fisher, it’s a unique approach that’s never been used.
The county received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to fund the mitigation project.
“We targeted nearly 4,000 acres, which we are developing into a north project and a south project,” says Fisher. “For each project, we identified the line, area or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wild land or vegetative fuels.”
Fisher said the developed areas feature a mix of houses located on small, medium and large lots. While homes in those neighborhoods have varying degrees of fire resistance and space that can be defended, the adjacent areas have a history of large destructive fires and a high-density concentration of understory fuel.
The north project cost is just over $1.6 million; FEMA contributed more than $1.2 million. The south project cost is $2.1 million; FEMA contributed almost $1.6 million. The HMGP grant has a two-year performance period so Fisher says the county is focusing on what it can do in that time period.
With the funds, the county has designed a mechanical thinning process that uses skid steers, which are low-impact machines with a mulching head on the front with teeth. Operators grind up the understory and remove undesirable species growing under the tree canopy. In a wildfire outbreak, the fire stays on the ground and does not rise into the trees.
Fisher said the project has sparked excitement, curiosity and some reservations among residents. Most of the acreage targeted for mitigation is private property. According to Fisher, the most challenging part of the project has been getting homeowner buy-in, but the county has succeeded in gaining right of entry from each property owner.
What could have been another potential hurdle has become a windfall for a resident amphibian and surrounding habitat.
The project sites are home to the endangered Houston toad, protected by the Endangered Species Act. Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were consulted before work began. Toads in the project area have been captured and given to a biologist for safekeeping until it is deemed safe to return them to their habitat.
“We are learning that thinning out the forest actually creates a better environment for the Houston toad,” says Fisher. “In addition to mitigating wildfires in the neighborhoods, the project is helping to create a healthy forest because it returns the ecosystem back to the way it was intended.”
Fisher says Bastrop is happy to tell its story. “If we don’t get it right, we’ll tell that story, too. Disasters are non-traditional. Sometimes it takes a non-traditional approach to do what needs to be done in terms of mitigation. You can’t be timid.”
The website www.co.bastrop.tx.us has additional information about nontraditional wildfire mitigation.
To learn more about how cities and towns across Texas are building stronger, safer communities visit Best Practice Stories | FEMA.gov.
FEMA’s mission is to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.