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Lake Travis Fire Rescue battles blazes, budgets
Friday, May 18, 2012 | | 1
- PHOTO BY DEVIN MONK Lake Travis Fire Rescue firefighters contain a fire Tuesday night at a single-story house in the 4900 block of Julian Alps in Falconhead West that they believe started from a lighting strike. No injuries were reported, but investigators ruled the house a total loss at $350,000 in structural damages and $200,000 of contents damaged or destroyed.
By MEAGAN O’TOOLE-PITTS
Extreme drought, record heat waves and high winds from a tropical depression that made landfall in Louisiana came together to create the perfect fire storm in Central Texas last summer.
The dry season resulted in six major fires that consumed close to 7,000 acres and destroyed 57 homes in Travis County. In Bastrop County, more than 34,000 acres and 1,500 homes were destroyed.
Sept. 4, 2011, was recorded as the worst fire day in recent history for Central Texas.
The conditions this summer are expected to pose similar dangers, according to Jim Linardos, fire chief of Lake Travis Fire Rescue, also known as Emergency Services District No. 6, serving Lakeway, The Hills, Bee Cave and surrounding unincorporated areas of Travis County.
“We average about 10 acres a year for wildfires, but last year about 1,200-1,800 acres burned in this district alone,” Linardos said. “We lost 26 homes and damaged about 20 or 30, most of them in the Steiner Ranch area.”
Two months ago, a wildland fire consumed 20 acres in the 26800 block of Hamilton Pool Road, and the time to start preparing for emergency situations is now, he said.
After last summer’s wildfires, Travis County and Lake Travis Fire Rescue, along with other stakeholders, formed the Wild Land Taskforce to promote public education material that homeowners can use to protect themselves and their property. “Ready, Set, Go!,” a booklet created by the taskforce, gives guidance on how to protect property and steps to take to insure safety if an evacuation is ordered.
“You don’t realize how scary it is until you see your fire guys running down door-to-door in your neighborhood telling people to get out in 10 minutes,” said Steiner Ranch resident Kimberly McLaughlin, who attended an emergency services presentation at a Lake Travis Commercial Association of Dealmakers meeting May 9.
“Ready, Set, Go!” has a checklist for creating a family disaster plan, which should include meeting locations and communication plans and be rehearsed regularly, Linardos said.
Before a fire comes in close proximity, plans should be already put in place.
Some fires, such as the Bastrop blaze, don’t allow any reaction time and evacuation is an immediate necessity, he said.
“You don’t have any time,” Linardos said. “You get in the car and you get out with your life.”
“Ready, Set, Go!” includes information on how to create a buffer around homes using fire-resistant materials, reducing the chances that a fire will spread with airborne embers.
Replacing wood fencing with metal fencing is one of several ways to ensure fire safety, Linardos said.
In addition to the booklet, the Wild Land Task Force is also looking at other ways to disseminate information, such as developing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan and applying for grants to deal with fuel mitigation efforts.
“We learned a whole bunch of interesting things during the fires last year – No. 1 is we have to do a better job of letting you guys know what’s going on,” he said at the association’s meeting.
The Texas Forest Service developed an online wildfire risk assessment portal through which residents can determine their risk. According to the website, texaswildfirerisk.com, the risk in Bee Cave-Lakeway area ranges from moderate to very high, with the potential for 150-foot tall flames.
Travis County hired an information officer and agencies countywide are collaborating, Linardos said.
Although the district has the help of STAR Flight, an EMS helicopter service through the county, some residents complained that they didn’t see many aircrafts dropping water on fires last summer.
“I think Texas Forest Service needs to mobilize more aircrafts,” Linardos said. “I even had a chance to tell the governor how I felt about that during the Steiner Ranch fire.”
Emergency preparedness for individuals is important because not all efforts by firefighters will succeed, according to 1st Sgt. Dewayne Naumann, HHC Texas State Guard at Camp Mabry in Austin.
Naumann’s unit supported the flying missions during the Bastrop fire.
“The problem with that was the fire was so intense that water would evaporate before it would get to the ground or do any good,” he recalled. “That’s how hot it was.”
Money is at the source of many of the problems that plague Lake Travis Fire Rescue, which is staffed with only three firefighters per unit, Linardos said.
“As tight as dollars are, we’re going to try and go out there and make an impact on the key areas that we think are going to create a problem for us,” he said.
According to state law, four firefighters are required to enter a burning structure and contain the fire.
LTFR’s staffing is one firefighter short of that requirement. As firefighters wait for more units to arrive, their response times balloon by five to seven minutes, Linardos said.
“There’s an exception to the rule – if there’s a rescue to be performed we can go in,” he said.
LTFR does not have the funding to add a fourth firefighter to each unit because the tax rate is so low, Linardos said.
“Most fire departments are funded at 28 to 30 cents per $100 valuation,” Linardos said. “We’re capped at 10 cents – simple as that. That’s been the struggle since I got here.”
Funding is so low that the LTFR almost had to close a station, he said.
“We saved over $100 million in property last year,” Linardos said. “Really, we saved about 560 homes directly. That’s what this fire department saved. You want to run the math – that’s a good return on your investment.”
Many are opposed to a tax increase, he said, so other options must be explored.
“We’re looking at merging districts, we’re looking at merging with the city, we’re looking at adding other districts,” Linardos said. “We’ve got to fix this.”
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