Local wildfire experts say new building codes set to protect homes from brush fires will become increasingly more important as new construction on the outskirts of the city encroaches onto wildlands.
Austin’s Wildland-Urban Interface Code, or WUI, a set of rules requiring ignition-resistant materials and landscape requirements for areas most at risk for widespread wildfires, was implemented at the start of the year for many new homes and remodels just as Austin’s housing market began to rebound after the pandemic.
Now six months into the new WUI Code enforcements, Austin Wildfire Mitigation Officer Justice Jones said homes now under construction and adopting the WUI Code standard will be the future barrier to help protect Austin from wildfires. Some of the building changes in the new rules include roof and siding requirements, in addition to the mandatory installation of vent and chimney covers, according to Jones.
“I would say we’re making significant progress,” Jones said last week. “As we continue to build and expand and those new homes are constructed to the WUI Code standard, they will create a buffer, ideally, around the perimeter of our community.”
Austin and Travis County’s risk for a megafire event was in the national spotlight months before the coronavirus pandemic began in Travis County after a wildfire analysis by CoreLogic, an online property data service, ranked Austin fifth among metropolitan areas in the country most at risk.
How Austin’s wildfire chances compare to 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 collectively called Austin’s risk of mass wildfire devastation “scary,” comparing the dense vegetation and triple-digit temperatures to California’s and urged city leaders to act fast.
The Austin City Council a few months later voted to adopt the WUI Code, with some modifications compared with the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code used nationally and abroad. Austin was the first city in Texas to adopt a version of the rules.
The most recent CoreLogic report released in September kept Austin in its ranking as fifth for wildfire risk. The only other metropolitan areas at a greater risk than Austin in the United States are all in California, according to CoreLogic.
More:‘When, not if it happens’: Factors favor possible Austin mega wildfire event
While the Austin area avoided any extreme wildfires last year, Californians experienced the largest wildfire season recorded in the state’s modern-day history. In all, California recorded 10,000 fires, more than 4.2 million acres burned, 10,488 structures damaged or destroyed with 33 deaths, according to Cal Fire’s online records.
The El Dorado Fire alone, which was started by a gender reveal party gone wrong in September, burned a total of 22,744 acres.
Risk of wildfires in Austin
Wildfire experts agree the Austin area has all the right ingredients to produce yearly wildfire seasons similar to that of California, save for one: Wind.
While Austin has weeks of triple-digit temperatures paired with dense vegetation and rolling grasslands, what the area fails to produce is sustained winds that can push wildfires across hundreds of thousands of acres.
But a decrease in controlled burns last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, paired with a spring that sporadically dumped almost a foot of rain on Austin, the area stands at risk for an above-average wildfire season this summer.
Jones said the above-average spring rainfall allowed for the wildland areas to grow thick, which in turn has become the perfect fuel for wildfires once grass or forest areas like Austin’s greenbelts dry out from the summer heat.
“This might not be fire season right now, but it’s certainly the time to start preparing for the next fire season,” Jones said. “We could see the fire season start later this summer as soon as the rain stops and the grass dries out.”
Because of climate change, the wildfire season that used to last from June through September is now seeing an equal risk of disaster extend to almost the whole year.
Even without regularly sustained gusty winds, Central Texas has had its fair share of wildfires.
In 2011, as Central Texas vegetation withered during a historic drought, the most destructive wildfire in state history burned more than 34,000 acres. The Bastrop Complex Fire destroyed 1,660 homes, killed two people and injured 12 others.
In Travis County, the 2011 wildfire season sparked 76 blazes and burned 9,835 acres, according to data collected by the Texas A&M Forest Service.
The 2011 season was the most devastating in recent history for Texas, with a statewide total of 30,896 fires and more than 9.9 million acres burned, the data said.
Even before the Bastrop Complex Fire, the forest service in 2008 tallied 175 fires that burned an average of 658 acres in Travis County alone. The next year, 50 fires burned an average of 95 acres in the county.
However, after 2011 the total number of fires and acres burned decreased significantly. The highest number of fires from 2011 through 2020 was in 2013 with 74 fires and 109 acres burned.
What do I need to know about the WUI Code in Austin?
For those planning to buy homes in Austin, the most important step is to see if you’re going to be within the city’s zone requirements for the WUI Code.
The main areas zoned for the new rules form a ring around Austin a few miles deep along the city limits. Those areas include homes near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, Jollyville Plateau, east of U.S. 183 and in Northeast Austin near U.S. 290 East and Southwest Austin near U.S. 290 West.
These areas are increasingly showing up on the radar in the Austin housing market as available land in the city core is running out, and more people are being drawn to the suburbs.
For those in the WUI Code enforcement area, Austin Fire Marshal Tom Vocke said this week that one of biggest changes homeowners will see is the requirement of Class A roofing, which uses materials that have the highest resistance to fires. In addition, those closest to wildland areas are now required to have double-paned glass windows and noncombustible screens over attic vents and chimneys.
Again, Vocke said the requirements depend on how close your home is to wildlands.
“The ember protection and roofing in most of the houses are the only things that are going to be required, unless you live really close to the greenbelt area,” Vocke said. “The homes that are closer to the greenbelt area are going to potentially have to add noncombustible siding and higher rated windows and doors.”
The City Council in April chose to omit the portion of the international WUI Code that gives fire officials the authority to reduce vegetation and other fire hazards on some private property. Austin’s code, unlike the international code, also does not hold landowners responsible for decreasing wildfire risks.
While the Austin WUI Code omits portions from its international counterpart, it adds new sections to the code that protect homes closer to downtown from wildfire embers floating miles from the source of the flames that could ignite structures. Those protections include the requirements of attic and chimney shields.
“Our code helps to protect communities from that threat of ember, which is really innovative,” Jones said.
Austin firefighters cannot force landowners to reduce the risk of wildfires on their property outside of what the code allows, so encouraging residents to take care of their properties through wildfire education is key.
Firefighters also are educating land developers about fire risks and requesting that they reconsider building homes right up against wildlands. The leftover space inside subdivisions should instead be for water retention ponds, parks, pools or recreational uses that don’t include houses, according to Vocke.
“It took us 100 years of not confronting the threat of wildfire to get in this situation,” Jones said. “So, we’re treating our approach to wildfire mitigation as a cultural shift and a marathon — and it’s going to take us a long time to make that shift.”
For more information on the WUI Code, visit wildfire-austin.hub.arcgis.com.