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Environment

Looking Back On 10 Years Since Bastrop Fire, And What Central Texas Is Doing To Mitigate Future Disasters

 Smoke from the Bastrop County Complex fire in 2011.
Smoke from the Bastrop County Complex fire in 2011.

The 2011 Bastrop County Complex fire was the most destructive wildfire in Texas history.

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From Texas Standard:

Ten years ago on Saturday, a tragic combination of heat, drought and wind created the most destructive wildfire in Texas history. It burned for six weeks on more than 43,000 acres, destroyed 1,700 structures and killed two people.

Randy Fritz was in the middle of it. Fritz is a former Bastrop County judge and author of "Hail of Fire: A Man and His Family Face Natural Disaster." Fritz shared his recollections about the fire with Texas Standard.

"We were at the tail end of what was an unspeakable drought and a very hot summer. And I woke up and I looked at my phone and, amazingly enough, I saw a large blob of green on the weather radar. ... I thought [it was] maybe the remnants of the tropical storm that had formed that day in the Gulf, maybe was bringing rain. But I was wrong; it turned out that it was smoke."

"We decided to evacuate. And as we evacuated, we could see this enormous cloud of smoke billowing up over the horizon. ... I could see basically a snake of smoke that was slithering southwest, and you could see little pops of light burning through the dark smoke. And I knew that those were homes and structures basically being exploded or incinerated."

"It was about noon the day after the fire broke out, and the fire had not yet reached our neighborhood. ... So I decided to go back there to get some things, some of which are my daughter's birthday presents, but also some some essentials that you need when you are going to be away from your home for a few days. And I found out later that if I had stayed there for another hour and a half, I would have almost certainly died."

"We had to make a decision whether we were going to move away for good or go back to the place where I have lived since 1980. And ultimately we decided to return – too many friends, too many connections to walk away from it. But it was a hard decision to make."

"I think there's a greater understanding among those people who were here when the fire broke out what you have to do to protect your property."

"There are quite a few people now who, when you refer to the fire, as we do, they don't know what you're talking about. And they have no idea what Bastrop County used to look like. The single greatest loss, in my opinion, was the incineration of the Lost Pines, and [they] will come back eventually."

Fritz will be speaking at the 'Perseverance in the Pines: Road to Recovery' community event at Bastrop Convention Center on Saturday, Sept. 4, 12:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m.

The 2011 wildfire outbreak in Central Texas spurred a response from Austin-area leaders to assess the city's wildfire risk. In 2020 the Austin City Council adopted wildfire codes for businesses and homes, known as Wildfire Urban Interface codes. Those codes took effect at the start of 2021. Such codes are common in other wildfire-prone cities and states, such as California.

Texas Standard reporter and producer Jill Ament has covered the wildfire risks in Austin and the surrounding Hill County over the past couple of years. She says the risk for wildfires in Austin is pretty high.

“It’s one of the highest risks in the country according to a market research firm called Core Logic,” Ament said. “Back in 2011 this area experienced several wildfire outbreaks that prompted Austin city leaders to try and get a better idea of what and where the wildfire risk was in Austin. …They created what’s called a Wildland Urban Interface, or a WUI. This is basically a map that just shows where in Austin has the highest risk of wildfire, and more than 60% of the city is at a moderate to extreme risk of wildfire."

Establishing the WUI helped Austin leaders determine where their WUI codes would be implemented. WUI codes are similar to building codes, and they’re enforced by the Austin Fire Department. The codes apply to any new construction for commercial and residential buildings. They range from having fire-resistant roofing to double-paned windows to non-combustible screens on attic vents and chimneys. “

It did take the city a while to assess its wildfire risk and establish its WUI,” Ament said.

Ament continued: “I think a lot people who are involved in these conversations say that there were other issues like the serious flooding the area experienced in the past 10 years that city council needed to address. But I really think it was the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, that kind of reinvigorated this conversation among residents living in wildfire-prone areas in Austin and city council members.”

Along with establishing the WUI, the city also developed a wildland fire division. Members of that division learn about how to respond to wildfires and how to mitigate them.

“You’ll have probably noticed living here in the past 10 years, you have seen more and more controlled burning in specific areas,” Ament said. “That’s also another popular mitigation method that’s used by wildland firefighters to kind of burn off excess vegetation that’s fuel for wildfires.”

Austin is the first city in Texas that has adopted wildfire codes like these. Core Logic has also listed San Antonio as the city with the 10th-highest wildfire risk in the country. Houston has ranked 15th in past studies. Ament says she’s not aware of wildfire mitigation efforts in those cities.

“I definitely know states like California have statewide WUI codes. But in state like Texas, top leaders might not have the appetite to implement more regulations,” she said.

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