Chief Engineer Carl Wren of the AFD Emergency Prevention Division said the consideration of this code was in response to a hazard that was made clear by the recent fires in Central Texas, like the one in Oak Hill (above) on April 17.
by Ann Fowler
Officials with the Austin Fire Department (AFD) recently discussed with members of the Public Safety Commission the possibility of adopting the International Wildland Urban Interface Code. The code determines how developers can build structures near wildland areas such as greenbelts.
Chief Engineer Carl Wren of the AFD Emergency Prevention Division told the Gazette, “There are some good reasons to consider the adoption of this code and I believe that there is a desire within AFD to adopt it in some form if possible.”
The objective of the AFD is to establish minimum regulations that are consistent with national best practices and that mitigate risk to life and property from wildland fire exposure. The regulation can be tiered to match the hazard level. The Wildland Urban Interface Code would supplement current building and fire codes.
Wren said wholesale adoption of the code is not possible. He said, “There is a potential for conflicts with the city’s other regulations that needs to be studied along with other development related issues and environmental issues to help ensure that we don’t create unintended consequences, staffing and resource allocation issues, jurisdictional problems, environmental problems, or legal conflicts.”
Wren said the consideration of this code was in response to a hazard that was made clear by the recent fires in Central Texas. The code addresses two thresholds, one for 30 feet and one for 100 feet, for fuel modification depending on fuel and topography. Said Wren, “There is some desire in the local area to impact the potential fuels more than 100 feet from structures which will require local amendments to the code if it is to be accomplished. This is another aspect of the code that needs to be addressed in the vetting process.”
He added, “The impact of the code to new and existing buildings is one of the aspects of adoption that needs to be addressed during the vetting process. Whether, and how, anything will be applied retroactively needs to be carefully evaluated during the process of getting input from interested parties.”
Assistant Fire Chief Doug Fowler, who lives in the Oak Hill area, said the Wildland Urban Interface Code can help local residents create defensible space, although defining such a space can vary from home to home. He told the Gazette, “Every structure is different, especially when you consider what’s around it — such as a deck. Also, depending on the slope, some structures may need more than 100 feet, but it is almost impossible to write something like that in the code.”
Fire officials believe concerned residents would do well to seek the assistance of local firefighters who can walk the property and point out what homeowners can do to create defensible space.
One local resident questioned whether homes above a greenbelt can ignite based on the heat of a wildfire, not by direct flame. Answered Chief Fowler, “Radiation can and does start fire, though more often it spreads fire. If a house caught fire and we could not put out the fire quickly, the house next door — 10 feet away — could heat up, begin to smoke as it got hotter, and then burst into flames — all from radiated heat.” Creating defensible space can minimize such occurrences.
The Wildland Urban Interface Code is being considered only within the city. Oak Hill Fire Department Acting Chief Jeffrey J. Wittig said of the code, “This sounds very interesting, but unfortunately, it’s not something the Oak Hill Fire Department would be able to adopt. The state laws are very limiting for Emergency Services Districts’ authority to adopt codes. We do have an adopted fire code, but we are not able to adopt or enforce building codes. I believe this code would also not be covered under what the state law allows us to do.”
But Chief Wittig sees a benefit if the city adopts this code. He said, “If the city of Austin adopts such a code in conjunction with their fire code, building code, and zoning ordinances, it could very well help begin increasing the effectiveness of fighting wildland fires in the wildland urban interface. This would impact some Oak Hill residents who live inside the city limits and could help set a pattern for county residents to optionally follow.”