Photo Credit: Meet Austin Fire Department’s Wildfire Fuels Mitigation Crew. They work to help residents living in Austin’s wildland-urban interface live more safely with wildfire. Photo by Nia Henry, Austin Fire Department
Not all fire departments have a wildland fire division. How did yours evolve?
As Travis County has expanded into previously rural areas, more of our residents have moved into the wildland-urban interface, or the WUI. As the name implies, it’s where human developments — houses, businesses, etc. — share a fence (be it literal or abstract) with a farm, ranch, open space or other undeveloped area.
Austin’s population is expected to double in the next 30 years, and much of its future development will be in this region. But wildfire risk is determined by more than just a place; it’s affected by climate (ours is getting drier), vegetation, topography, and values at risk. During Labor Day weekend in 2011, those conditions converged and struck residents of Travis and Bastrop counties with devastating force. That weekend, some 7,000 acres burned in Travis County, destroying 57 homes. Our neighbors in Bastrop County suffered the largest loss per capita in the nation’s history, as flames consumed 34,000 acres and 1,700 homes. Before those fires receded in memory, Austin and Travis counties formed the Joint Wildfire Task Force. Its goal was to make sure all communities in the region became more fire adapted. It’s not if another major wildfire will hit us — but when it will hit us. One of the Task Force’s accomplishments was establishing Austin Fire Department’s Wildland Fire Division. To learn more about Austin’s nuanced approach to community wildfire resilience, check out this blog, Urban vs. Rural: When It Comes to FAC, What’s the Difference?
What does a wildfire fuels mitigation crew do?
Our title and work are interchangeable. We go into different portions of Austin’s WUI and create buffers (i.e., areas with cleared or thinned vegetation) to mitigate the risk of embers igniting residential property. We use wood chippers, chainsaws, hand tools, trailers, utility task vehicles and other power tools. Since 2016, we have treated over five miles of land, or 41 acres.
When you get to work on Monday morning, what are the top priorities?
Mondays are our rehab days. This is the only day of the week that we have to detail and polish our equipment. We take this day to gas up our trucks and have preparation meetings. We outline, map out, and prioritize our fuels mitigation plans for the week. We discuss projects that have been completed to satisfaction, and the ones that are still pending.
Who might you see in person?
Because we operate out of the Austin Fire Department, we are likely to see on-duty firefighters and other Wildfire Division personnel. Mondays are usually the days when everyone is strategizing for what’s to come that week, so we may or may not interact with everyone at the station.
Tell us about how you work together.
Our crew operates under the supervision of Lieutenant Steve Gibbon. The crew lead is Heriberto Sanchez from Sunnyvale, California. He helps organize the team and strategize how to tackle the terrain. The rest of the remarkable crew members are Joseph Enriquez from San Marcos, Texas; Riley Tinnin from Bernie, Texas; Nickolas Harkness from Tampa Bay, Florida; Adam Barnett from La Grange, Georgia; Andrew Spurlin from Dorchester, Texas; and Jon Porter from Round Rock, Texas. We have interchangeable roles, and we make it a point to complete tasks seamlessly. For example, while one of us cuts a limb off a tree, the other person is right behind, ready to carry and stow it in our brush truck. We have an organized system that makes our work more efficient, sort of like an assembly line.
Where might your job take you today?
Project J17 on Edwards Hollow, off Brodie Lane. On the first days of the project, we’ll get an adequate feel for the terrain. We clear as much brush and fuel as we can, with that rush of energy that comes along with the newness of a project. In between cutting and stowing vegetation, we obtain an understanding of the structures and features on the landscape. For example, we identify dead trees that need to be removed. We also pay attention to the types and ages of the trees. We tend to preserve and promote tree canopies (i.e., most of the plants we remove are shrubs and groundcover), with a preference for native species such as oaks and junipers. Species such as chinaberry and ligustrum are invasive and encroach on our region’s grassy prairies, so we tend to remove them. Also, we pay attention to any hazards there may be such as bees and wasps.
What are you most proud of?
Our greatest accomplishments happen every day when we’re doing mitigation work. To know that we are helping prevent and/or slow down potential wildfires is incredibly rewarding. We leave our worksites with the satisfaction of knowing that someone’s home has the potential of being spared.
Work is over; another long but fulfilling day behind you. What’s next?
Although we are one unit, we each have different personalities and interests. For example, spending time with family is Heriberto Sanchez’s top priority, while Riley Tinnin enjoys seeing the world and all of the animals in it. Jon Porter’s top passion is being a good provider for his family, as his daughter, Madalynn, recently turned 20 months old. Andrew Spurlin and Adam Barnett are interested in “connecting with people” and “paying attention to people in need.” Adam also hopes to become a bright-screen film writer. As for Nickolas Harkness, he enjoys fixing up his house and automobile. However, his biggest accomplishment was moving to Texas and meeting his fiancé, and they will be getting married next year! And finally, Joseph Enriquez believes in upholding Austin Fire Department’s standards, and treating people and their property the way they want to be treated.
Any closing remarks for our readers?
Austin Fire Department’s Wildfire Fuels Mitigation Crew works hard to deliver quality services. Through accuracy, precision and passionate investment, we ensure that homes in the WUI are safer. With that said, it is no surprise that a few of our team members have met the requirements to enter the Austin Fire Department Academy! Special congratulations to Andrew Spurlin for being in the top three on the Fire Academy List!
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