Austin works to create fire breaks between parks and neighborhoods

These two forestry technicians with the Austin Fire Department will clear 100 to 200 feet of city-owned land on Thursday. They're creating a shaded fuel break between a South Austin subdivision and a city park. (Photo:Bettie Cross)

Wildfire dangers have the Austin Fire Department working to reduce the growing threat. 198 miles of city-owned land is considered at higher risk. To make parks, greenbelts and neighborhoods safer, fuel breaks are being cut into the landscape.

The buzz of a chainsaw is a welcome sound in a South Austin neighborhood. All the tree limbs and vegetation cleared out by a crew of three forestry technicians reduces the fuel that could feed a wildfire.

“What they are creating is a shaded fuel break,” said Captain Josh Anderson with the Austin Fire Department (AFD).

This week the crew is creating a fuel break between Mary Moore Searight Metropolitan Park and The Oak at Twin Creeks subdivision. Cedar trees and thick undergrowth has pushed right up to backyard fences, putting homes and people at greater risk. Which parks, greenbelts and nature preserves are prioritized depends a lot on the landscape.

“We’re looking at slope because fire typically runs faster uphill. So we’re using that as a factor as well as density and what type of vegetation is growing,” said Captain Anderson.

The shaded fuel break being created on Thursday stretches from backyard fences out into the city park sixty feet.

“Whether it makes it faster, hotter, more intense, we’re coming in and reducing the one thing we have control over which is that fuel. What is actually here ready to burn,” said Captain Anderson.

Shaded fuel breaks never require clearing the land. The crew saves as many trees as possible, but takes out low-hanging branches from the ground up to six feet.

“Removing any ladder fuels, surface fuels, that will contribute to the growth of the fire and getting the fire up into the canopy,” said Lt. Steve Gibbons with AFD.

Once a wildfire snakes its way into the canopy it’s difficult if not impossible to fight.

“At that point the flames lengths and the amount of heat, our fire trucks and our firefighters cannot actively engage in that close fire fight,” said Captain Anderson.

By the end of the year the Austin Fire Department is hoping to have created five to six miles of shaded fuel breaks on city-owned land. That is only a fraction of the 198 miles across the city that have been identified as needing wildfire prevention measures.

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