Austin a ‘Poster Child’ for Urban Wildfire Threat
The Front Lines of Climate Change: Global warming is, by definition, global, but the impacts of climate change touch everyone on a local level. How each community responds depends on its unique mix of people and geography. This story is part of a Climate Central series that looks at how communities are facing the challenges ahead.
AUSTIN, Texas — From her home, Nancy Ward could smell the smoke and see the flames of a wildfire scorching a subdivision a few miles away during the height of Texas’ worst drought on record.
That blaze in 2011, the 160-acre Steiner Ranch Fire, destroyed 23 homes in a gated community perched high atop a canyon. It's a residential area similar to Ward’s Barton Creek West subdivision, which is surrounded by a densely wooded greenbelt and adjacent Barton Creek Habitat Preserve on three sides southwest of downtown Austin and a few miles south of Steiner Ranch.
Nancy Ward stands at her backyard fence line, which borders a densely wooded greenbelt preserve in southwest Austin highly prone to fire. She has cleared out underbrush 30 feet beyond her fence line to help protect her home from wildfire.
Credit: Bobby Magill
The greenbelt, the preserve and other protected areas like them around Austin are replete with dense stands of ashe juniper trees, commonly known to many Texans as Hill Country “cedar” trees.
Much of western Austin and Travis County are at high risk for wildfire, with many homes nestled in the Hill Country’s picturesque, but combustible, woodlands where the ashe junipers contain oils that tend to explode when ignited. Many homeowners allow the trees to grow right up against their homes, exposing entire subdivisions to a major wildfire threat and putting other neighborhoods at risk when the wind blows embers far outside the burn area.
That was a worry when Steiner Ranch was burning, Ward said.
“We’re not that far as the crow flies,” she said. “It just came crashing home that this is a very real danger. This could happen to us.”
In the U.S., the impacts of climate change will vary across regions, and even within the same state. On the East Coast, it means rising seas threatening swaths of coastal communities. In South Carolina, it means urban high-tide flooding, and in Colorado, threatened water supplies.
In Texas, which straddles the wet-dry divide between East and West, drought likely exacerbated by climate change means that confronting the threat of wildfires has become a way of life. And nowhere is that better illustrated than here in Austin, a booming metropolitan area of 1.8 million people.
Austin, the 11th largest city in the U.S., is warming, with the average temperature in the city increasing by 2°F over the past century. Texas overall has seen its average temperature increase by about 0.1°F degrees each decade. Austin is facing more drought and an ever-growing population adds even more strain to drought-stressed water supplies. Since 1960, the Austin metro area has seen explosive growth, as its population has increased by an average of about 41 percent each decade, many pushing into the densely wooded hill country on the west side of the city.
All of that is fodder for an explosion of wildfires and wildfire damage across Texas’ capital city.
As the climate warms throughout the West, wildfires are expected to become even more common than they are today. The National Research Council reported in 2012 that for every degree Celsius (1.8°F) of increased warmth, the size of the area burned in the Western U.S. could quadruple, and studies show that temperatures in the U.S. may rise by between 3°F and 10°F by 2100.
Already, the Western wildfire season is two and half months longer than 40 years ago, with many fires in the West burning during winter months. And, since 1970, years with above-average spring and summer temperatures are often the years with the biggest wildfires.
2011 put Texas on the map as the ultimate example of what fire seasons could look like in the future as the climate warms. That was the year 4 million acres burned and Texas residents awoke to see what extreme drought aggravated by climate change may mean for them. Fires tearing through parts of Colorado Springs and Los Angeles in 2012 and 2013 were additional reminders that a wildfire destroying parts of a major city isn’t a far-fetched idea.
The Texas wildfires in 2011 were extraordinary: More than 31,450 wildfires destroyed 2,947 homes in the Lone Star State. The worst fire ripped through the ecologically unique “lost pines” of Bastrop County, an island of loblolly pines about 100 miles removed from their otherwise westernmost habitat. About half of the lost pines were destroyed, as were more than 1,600 homes in and around the city of Bastrop, a small city of about 7,200 that sits 45 miles east of Austin.
“When we saw the Steiner Ranch Fire and the Pinnacle Fire (and the Bastrop fire), we realized not only could these fires start, but they could move very quickly up these canyons and many of our homes were in great danger,” Will Boettner, an Austin-based wildfire mitigation specialist for the Texas A&M University Forest Service, said.
Lake Travis, part of the Austin area's water supply just west of the city, was less than 40 percent full in early February, a sign of both high water demand and too little rain to replenish it.
Credit: Bobby Magill
Austin’s greenbelts — narrow strips of protected woodlands within the city — are a concern because tossed cigarette butts, small campfires and human carelessness are likely to cause wildland fires within the city, he said.
The greenbelts act as wildfire corridors, and because Austin straddles the edge of a canyon-incised plateau, wildfires can easily burn uphill, threatening homes in neighborhoods built on wooded hillsides.
“Austin is kind of a poster child for wildfire concern because of our greenbelts,” said Kerry Cook, a professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas-Austin and an editor of the Journal of Climate. “There’s essentially wilderness running through the center of Austin. It is a corridor for wildfires to come downtown to the skyscrapers.”
Ward, whose brick home backs directly onto a juniper-wooded strip of neighborhood-owned greenbelt adjacent to the Barton Creek Habitat Preserve, said she heard about all the wildfires that summer and was overcome with the fear that she nor any of her neighbors are safe as the Texas drought wears on.
“This is in our backyard,” she said. “It got a lot of people’s attention.”
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For Jeff Shapiro, a resident of the hilly and heavily wooded Jester Estates subdivision in Austin, living with the threat of wildfire means understanding that in the worst drought conditions, it is residents’ responsibility to protect themselves.
“I’ve referred to Jester as a one-match fire,” he said. “Two years ago, one match in that canyon could have wiped out large portions of that neighborhood. I’m convinced that (the threat is) going to continue for a large amount of time.”
A part of the Jester Estates neighborhood sits in a canyon with one way in and one way out, creating a difficult situation when a wildfire forces an evacuation.
“You’re going to evacuate 400-plus homes down a two-lane road to a major highway intersection that’s going to back people up. You also have to get fire trucks into the neighborhood,” Shapiro said. “There’s no fire department in the country that has the capability to protect us in a circumstance like that.”
A State of Change
Though conditions are drying, it’s not clear exactly how climate change will affect the Austin area in the future, but residents are noticing changes.
“I live on a canyon edge,” Shapiro said. “When I first moved there, people didn’t think a lot about wildfire because it was wet and we had a lot of rain.”
The number of 100°F summer days is increasing in Austin, with the 10 years with the most 100°F or warmer days occurring just in the past 15 years. There were 33 100°F or warmer days in Austin in 1951. In 2011, there were 90, according to National Weather Service data.
Texas has always been prone to drought, but today’s dry spell began in the summer of 2010 and peaked in early October, 2011, when the U.S. Drought Monitor showed that 100 percent of the state was experiencing some level of drought and 88 percent of the state was under “exceptional” drought conditions, the most severe category. Today, 88 percent of Texas is experiencing abnormally dry or drought conditions, less than 1 percent of which are considered exceptional.
Evidence of drought is everywhere, especially in Lake Travis, which impounds Texas’ Colorado River just west of Austin. Lake Travis is part of the Highland Lakes System, one of the region’s largest reservoir systems and the area’s primary source of drinking water. In mid-February, Lake Travis was about 37 percent full, a sign that water consumption is high with too little precipitation to replenish it.
Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said the drought is not a product of climate change — it falls well within the bounds of natural variability — but climate change is likely making the drought worse.
“There’s nothing really going on out there that’s surely climate change,” he said. “Most of it is climate change aggravating things.”
Because Texas is so large — more than 800 miles wide and stretching from the Southern piney woods near Houston to the Chihuahuan Desert around El Paso — the mechanics of precipitation patterns, drought and the future effects of climate change in Texas depend on the region.
Austin gets most of its precipitation in the spring and fall, and weather there is heavily influenced by the Gulf of Mexico, unlike El Paso, which sits in the desert 500 miles to the west. Geography could work to Austin's advantage in a changing climate.
“The general pattern for changing precipitation is for the subtropical dry zones to expand northward, but we're sitting along the western edge of the Atlantic Basin with mountain ranges to the west of us,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “We'll have a steady supply of moisture. If any place at this latitude is going to avoid a dramatic drop in rainfall, we might be it.”
It’s possible that climate change may not mean the region will see less-than-average rainfall over the next 50 years or so, but climate change is likely to have a direct impact on the region’s exposure to wildfires regardless, he said.
Much of central Texas is gradually moving toward a drier climate, mainly a consequence of higher average temperatures. Anything that relies on wet weather is going to be harder to maintain because higher temperatures affect water evaporation and transpiration rates, he said.
“Wildfire is a major issue there, not because they’ve had a lot of wildfires, but because sooner or later they will,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “You’re (Austin) on the edge of the climate ecosystem that can support trees, and as it finally gets hotter and drier in the summertime, trees are going to be less viable, and the junipers and oaks will be less viable.”
Austin’s growing population has also spread deeper into the Texas Hill Country in recent decades, with new homes being built among the junipers and stressing the region’s water supplies.
“Historically, we didn’t have wildland fire, but as we began to infill these canyons, we also stuck our homes in the middle of a great big fuel source,” Boettner said. The dense woodlands surrounding neighborhoods are necessary both for quality of life, wildlife habitat and the survival of several endangered birds in the area.
“When you combine homes, fuels and endangered species issues, you run into a pretty good tangle when you figure out how to mitigate fire risk,” he said.
Boettner said he worries people are getting complacent about the wildfire threat because in the past 2 years, fire seasons in Texas haven’t been as severe as in 2011.
“They’re worried about wildfire, but not in the way they were a year ago,” he said.
Managing the Risk
Cities such as Austin with a high risk of wildfire can take steps to reduce the danger to homes and businesses, but the efforts of local governments also have to be met with homeowners’ willingness to make their own properties safer, Austin city officials say.
Though securing funding for wildfire protection in Austin has not been an easy fight, all city firefighters have been certified in basic wildland firefighting in the wake of the 2011 wildfires, and special wildfire fighting equipment is being added to the city’s firetruck fleet. Austin and Travis County are developing a community wildfire protection plan that is expected to be complete this spring, said Justice Jones, a senior environmental compliance specialist for the Austin Fire Department’s wildfire task force.
But there are limitations to what the city can do, Jones said.
The Barton Creek West neighborhood on the west side of Austin is like many in the Texas Hill Country where homes are nestled among dry and highly flammable ashe juniper trees — ideal fodder for wildfire in a drought.
Credit: Bobby Magill
“Like most of Texas, Austin consists primarily of private lands with less than 30 percent of the landscape being public,” he said. “Most of those public lands are considered endangered species habitat or sensitive environmental features as we are located on a karst aquifer. This limits the amount of fuels treatment that can be implemented on public lands. Our focus has primarily been empowering homeowners and communities at risk to address the potential for home ignitions.”
Like many homeowners in Austin, Ward said she’s acutely aware of the danger, and it has motivated her to work with neighbors to ensure Barton Creek West is prepared for the next wildfire.
Her backyard, which backs onto the greenbelt preserve, is clear of brush and downed limbs. She has even cleared out brush in the greenbelt 30 feet beyond her backyard fence line to help protect her home from an oncoming firestorm.
When Ward moved to Barton Creek West in the early 1990s, central Texas hadn’t had a severe drought in years, and wildfires weren't something residents considered when building homes in the area. But with Texas on fire in every direction in 2011, Ward said she realized while attending a community meeting that year that the neighborhood had no plans whatsoever for addressing the threat.
So she and her neighbors decided to work with Boettner to find ways to reduce the threat in Barton Creek West.
“We wanted to learn whatever we could about fire, how it behaves, what to expect, what we could do to improve our odds,” Ward said.
Boettner taught Ward and other Barton Creek West residents how to become a Firewise Community, something Ward likens to a neighborhood crime watch, but for wildfires.
To become a firewise community, residents learn how to clear out brush and vegetation from around their homes, protect their chimneys and attics from flying embers, construct fire-resistant roofs, create a wildfire disaster plan and take other steps to protect themselves.
Ward said she and other concerned residents would like to do assessments of every single home in their neighborhood.
“We developed a checklist so we can just go over to somebody’s home, and in about a half hour, make several recommendations to them on what they can do,” she said.
'Plenty Scared' of Wildfire
Public awareness of the Austin's wildfire threat is rising, but it will take a culture change to fully acknowledge the problem, Jones said.
The city is adamant, however, that acknowledging climate change isn’t necessary to take action, Austin Climate Program Manager Zach Baumer said.
“People are plenty scared of wildfire and drought without talking about climate change,” he said. “If there’s any doubt or skepticism, you can lose half the people. The thing about drought, about fire and air quality — the impact is real to actual people’s lives and they can see it and feel it and they may have financial skin the game.”
Boettner said that he might touch on human-caused climate change in his wildfire mitigation trainings, but in the end, the important thing is for people to make changes to their property.
“My goal is to keep people from burning up this week,” Boettner said. “You have to be very tactical in the fire business. (Climate change) is too tough of an issue to attach to the wildland fire issue except to say that we’re drying out.”
To keep his neighborhood from burning in the next wildfire, Shapiro said it’s necessary for neighbors to work together as best they can to reduce the threat to their homes.
That involves sending a strongly worded message to reluctant residents who think they may be immune to wildfire.
“Have you ever filed a homeowner’s claim if you lose everything? It’s not an easy process.” Shapiro said. “You may expect that when a wildfire occurs that there’s going to be a fire truck that parks in front of your house and saves your house. That’s a faulty assumption. There aren’t enough fire trucks.”
Firefighters have to triage homes in a burning neighborhood to decide which homes are savable and which ones aren’t as a wildfire is sweeping through the subdivision, he said.
“I have to do prep work so they can save my house,” Shapiro said, adding that if every resident wants his or her house protected during a fire, everyone has to work together.
“It’s really our responsibility to do what we can to protect our neighborhood,” he said.