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Austin Firefighters Prepare for Megafire With New Program

With a fuel load similar to California’s, Austin, Texas, firefighters are gearing up for the eventuality of a catastrophic wildfire that threatens the urban interface. They now are getting the tools they need for the battle.

Aerial view of a wildfire burning through a forest.
When Randy Denzer, vice president of the Austin Firefighters Association, looks at Austin, Texas, he thinks of California and catastrophic fire.

After the Labor Day fires in 2011, which claimed two lives and destroyed more than 1,600 homes in Austin, Denzer thought that one day there would be a bigger fire and the city would be unprepared for it.

So he set out to get Austin firefighters the training they needed, and with collaboration from experts in California and Colorado, that vision is coming to fruition with Responding to the Interface training officially rolling out in Austin after beta tests there and around the country.

After taking the course, Austin firefighters will have the skills they need to work a fire in a wildland-urban interface (WUI) environment and successfully defend homes while also suppressing fires.

Denzer explained that, as with California, urban sprawl in Austin has put homes right up against the wildlands, making controlling the fuel difficult to impossible with no opportunity for controlled fires to burn it up.

He recognized that the fuel load in Austin was similar to that in California, if not worse.

“I’ve been saying that Austin is going to have a bad fire,” Denzer said. “It’s going to be really bad on the scale of the Tubbs Fire in California where they lost 5,500 structures.”

And he said Austin firefighters were not equipped to handle a WUI fire that would threaten thousands of structures. “When the Labor Day fires happened, I found that the training we had been doing was horribly inadequate and came up very short,” he said. “The wildland firefighters didn’t have near the number of tools available to them that the structural firefighters do in terms of structural protection.”

Denzer likened West Austin to Malibu, Calif., with homes on ridges overlooking overgrown land — or to him, fuel for fires, even absent the sustained Santa Ana winds. “We can’t manage those lands below with the natural cycle of fire. Now we have forests that we can’t walk through.”

The Responding to the Interface program will provide firefighters with an understanding of safety, command and control and strategy, and tactics for defending structures from a WUI fire or for suppressing a wildfire in and around structures, something that Denzer thought was lacking back in 2011.

There is an online portion of the program that takes between 10 and 14 hours; the second portion is for hands-on training that includes eight hours of classroom training and eight hours in an “operational field exercise.”

Denzer said the program is on its way to becoming a standard for the country in WUI firefighting.

He noted that Austin has the highest risk for WUI loss in the country outside of California. “Everybody agrees, whatever the basis is, our climate is changing. Whether it’s man-made or natural, it’s changing, so we’re getting hotter spells and longer droughts.”
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