Bastrop fire report: Homes need larger buffer zone

The Associated Press

Last year’s devastating Bastrop County wildfire has shown that the vegetation-free area around a home should extend beyond the long-accepted recommendation of 30 feet, Texas Forest Service officials say.

The Austin American Statesman reported Thursday that a study designed to help prepare for future wildfires found that 85 percent of the homes consumed by the most destructive blaze in Texas history had a so-called defensible space of at least 30 feet.

Forest Service researcher Karen Ridenour, author of the 165-page study, didn’t provide a specific recommendation, but she noted that California state law requires a 100-foot radius that’s clear of vegetation. Defensible space, sometimes called “firescaping,” is intended to prevent a wildfire from spreading to the structure.

The Bastrop wildfire that started on Labor Day weekend in 2011 burned 32,400 acres and destroyed 1,696 homes in Central Texas. Two people died. A Texas Forest Service investigation found that the fire was started when wind gusts of more than 30 mph knocked down trees that crashed into overhead power lines, causing sparks that fell into dry grass below.

The report, conducted by several state and county agencies and Texas State University, includes a transcript of the conversation between 911 dispatchers and emergency responders when the fire broke out. It praised the quick response of firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and others who helped get people out of the fire’s path.

Ridenour said 80 percent of the homes destroyed had masonry construction, 84 percent had asphalt roofing and 83 percent had metal roofing. Those materials are not typically considered combustible, she said.

“That tells me it wasn’t the roof but the accumulation of debris in the valleys and leaves in the gutters,” Ridenour said of what probably caused the destruction of the homes.

She added that “little things” such as a bush too close to a window or a straw mat can put homes in jeopardy.

Mike Fisher, emergency management coordinator for the county, said the only way to prepare for future wildfires is to get rid of unnecessary fuel.

“Defensible space and firewise techniques are components that are important to preparation,” he said. “But the reality is that if we are to build homes in a previously unattended forest, we have to do mechanical trimming and prescribed burning.”

The study also looked to other factors, including topography, weather and when homes were built, to determine what may have contributed to the fire’s destructive nature.

Of destroyed homes studied in the report, 34 were built in the 1970s, 116 in the 1980s, 103 in the 1990s, and 67 in the 2000s.