WILDFIRE WISDOM: Create a strong defense around your property


By Will Holford 
Bastrop County residents know first-hand the devastation of wildfires. Since 2009, three wildfires have burned portions of the county. One of them, the 2011 Bastrop Complex Fire, was the largest wildfire in Texas history, burning more than 34,000 acres and destroying more than 1,600 homes and buildings. 
But fire can be tamed. There are smart ways to protect people, homes and property as well as reduce harm to the ecosystem. Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative is introducing a new program called “FireSmart: Wising Up To Wildfires” to help local residents and businesses reduce their risk of fire damage. 
In all three recent Bastrop County fires, flames damaged or destroyed some buildings but swept around others, causing little or no damage. The key to outmaneuver a fire, experts say, is to create and maintain so-called defensible space around homes and buildings, and to use fire-resistant materials in construction. 

Create a fuel-free area within 5 feet of your home, porch and deck by removing dry vegetation and mulch. Landscape with rocks or low-growing perennials that retain moisture. Keep rain gutters and roof clean.

Prune trees so lowest branches are 6-10 feet above the ground, and do not allow branches to hang over or near your roof. Alternate tall and short trees and keep space between them.

Within 30 feet of your home, do not store flammable materials such as woodpiles, boats, gas cans or infrequently used vehicles. 

Screen vents or openings in the attic or near the foundation to prevent embers from entering.

Keep lawn watered. If it is brown, cut it down to reduce fire intensity. Always dispose of lawn clippings.

Sources: National Fire Protection Association, Texas A&M Forest Service
Bluebonnet is headquartered on Texas 21 East, in the heart of the Lost Pines region. The headquarters narrowly escaped damage or destruction during the 2011 fire. Since then, the co-op has taken steps to reduce fire risks.
The new program will provide fire-risk reduction information and fire-smart practices, which can protect lives, homes and property throughout Bluebonnet’s service area. 
“We learned some very valuable lessons from the last three wildfires, particularly the Bastrop Complex fire in 2011,” said Matt Bentke, Bluebonnet’s general manager. “Safety and Community are two of Bluebonnet’s Foundation Values, so it is natural for us to share what we have learned with our members and residents in the communities we serve. During wildfires, more than with any other natural disaster, the way property owners maintain their land has a direct impact on everyone. That’s why it’s critically important to be fire smart.” 
Bluebonnet’s program collects information, tips and best practices from expert sources and partners, including the Texas A&M Forest Service, the National Fire Protection Association and Firewise Communities, an NFPA program. Bluebonnet will host community meetings, workshops and presentations to explain ways to reduce fire danger at homes and offices. 
Every property owner can follow the recommended steps: perform a wildfire risk evaluation; create a fire mitigation plan divided into multiple zones with different types of vegetation; incorporate fire-resistant materials in structures; create nonflammable barriers around buildings and remove flammable items, like patio furniture cushions, when not in use. 
Wildfires aren’t isolated to Bastrop County and the Lost Pines. Central Texas has diverse ecosystems like blackland prairie, post oak savannah and farm and ranch land. 


Bluebonnet is hosting a ‘FireSmart: Wising Up To Wildfires’ field day Sept. 17 at Bluebonnet’s headquarters, 155 Electric Ave. (formerly 650 Texas 21 East), Bastrop. The field day is free and open to the community with events and activities from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Michal Hubbard, Bluebonnet’s FireSmart coordinator for community education, and other Bluebonnet employees will be on hand to answer questions. Visitors to the event can see where and what vegetation Bluebonnet trimmed or removed to create defensible space and mitigate fire risk. Visitors can watch videos and pick up handouts with steps they can take at their homes and businesses.

Nonprofit environmental organizations from across the region, including the Texas Forest Service, will be on hand with information and displays. For information about ‘FireSmart: Wising Up To Wildfires’ and the field day, call 512-332-7977, visit our 
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“Every ecosystem is at risk for wildfire,” said Michal Hubbard, Bluebonnet’s ‘‘FireSmart: Wising Up to Wildfires’’ coordinator for community education. “And as more subdivisions are developed and homes built in rural areas, it’s important to create what we call ‘fire-adapted communities’ to mitigate as much of that risk as possible. 
“The first 30 feet around the home are most important, but the home ignition zone — the area where fire is close enough to ignite a structure from flame or heat — extends out to 200 feet,” Hubbard said. 
The co-op will host a “FireSmart: Wising up to Wildfires” field day at its headquarters at 155 Electric Ave. (formerly 650 Texas 21 East), Saturday, Sept. 17. The public is invited to the free events from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

(Sarah Beal)Mike Siegeler, left, a Bluebonnet facilities technician, and lineman Kenneth Roush, trim limbs that touch the co-op’s headquarters. Limbs that come in contact with a building increase the chance that a fire will spread to the structure.
Bluebonnet’s wildfire risk evaluation and mitigation plan was developed in conjunction with Rich Gray, assistant chief and regional fire coordinator for the Texas A&M Forest Service. Gray, a Bastrop County resident, is an expert in wildfires and has led firefighters during all three recent Bastrop County fires. 
Gray has firsthand knowledge of the importance of defensible space around structures. In October 2015, he and a group of firefighters were evacuating residents and battling the Hidden Pines fire near the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Science Park adjacent to Buescher State Park near Smithville. A sudden shift in wind direction created a potentially dangerous situation that could have forced firefighters to evacuate the area. But several homeowners had created defensible space with well-maintained ground cover, green grass and few pine needles. 
The firefighters felt comfortable enough to stay. They pushed the fire around the houses, saving them from destruction. “If there had not been defensible spaces for us to operate from,” Gray said, “we would have had to leave much earlier.” 
Flames can reach two to three times the height of any grass, shrubs or trees on fire. That means a 3- to 6-foot shrub near a home can generate flames 6 to 18 feet high. The flames and radiant heat likely would set any nearby structure ablaze. But a well-maintained yard can keep flames low to the ground and slow enough to give firefighters time to contain a fire before it ignites homes and buildings. 
Wildfires may continue to threaten our area, but smart defensive planning can help build a barrier between your home and flames.

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