The Texas A&M Forest Service and local fire departments have responded to more than 6,800 wildfires that have burned about 600,000 acres across the state since Jan. 1. Over the weekend, a wildfire near Liberty Hill in Williamson County prompted the temporary evacuation of at least 200 homes. But firefighters had contained 75% of the 500-acre blaze as of Monday morning.
As Texas’ ongoing drought intensifies this summer, fire safety experts are encouraging homeowners to prevent and prepare for uncontrolled outdoor fires. More than half of Americans do not have an emergency supplies kit and 1 in 10 say they would ignore evacuation orders during a wildfire and stay indoors, a national poll found.
The survey, conducted by online consumer ratings site GeneratorTools.com, was attended by 1,018 people across the country, including 78 Texans. Of those surveyed, 78% said they did not have a portable generator, 54% did not have a backup kit and 76% – 3 out of 4 – have not evacuated even when an evacuation order was issued because of a weather or disaster situation.
Disaster preparedness expert Bob Newman, a retired Navy SEAL master chief and product expert at security firm Batten Safe, said preparation can help prevent panic in emergencies.
“People need a starting point,” Newman said. “You don’t have to procrastinate on these things. … Most of the people that we find start preparing, they realize they won’t necessarily need these things, but they all feel a lot better when they have them, and then they inspire the other people in their community and theirs families to get involved in these things.”
The importance of preparation
Karen Stafford, a state coordinator for wildland fire prevention at the Texas A&M Forest Service, said that with worsening drought conditions in many parts of the state and 215 of 254 counties that are subject to a fire ban, they haven’t seen those types of conditions since 2011 have seen.
This year, the Bastrop County Complex fire, which started about 30 miles east of Austin in September and burned more than 34,000 acres, was the most destructive wildfire in state history.
James Altgelt, emergency management coordinator for Bastrop County, encourages people to prevent and prepare for fires in the area.
“The most important thing we ask of people is to respect the burn ban, be a good neighbor, be careful when welding or doing anything that can be a source of ignition for fires,” Altgelt said.
A mutual aid agreement allows fire departments such as Elgin, Smithville and Heart of the Pines to send crews to Bastrop if needed. The Texas A&M Forest Service provided additional units to the area as needed. Altgelt recommended people contact local fire departments to see if they can assess property and provide feedback on how to keep property safe before a fire department arrives.
Stafford said most people don’t prepare for natural disasters like wildfires because they don’t think they will be affected. However, she said 85% of wildfires occur within 2 miles of a community.
“A lot of people think, ‘This won’t happen to me.’ You don’t see it. You have never been affected by wildfire. But now is the time to prepare,” said Stafford. “It only takes a spark to start a wildfire.”
Stafford recommends taking certain precautions to prevent wildfires:
- Obey local incineration bans. The Texas A&M Forest Service has an online no-burn map.
- Be careful when parking near grass as the heat from your car can ignite the grass.
- When towing a trailer, beware of drag chains, which can create sparks and start roadside fires.
Prepare for fires
Newman recommends a few steps for those who don’t already have a security plan:
- First, plan emergency escape routes from your home.
- Communicate with all members of the household to ensure everyone knows the routes.
- Gather emergency tools.
- Read the instructions on new items so people can use the tools quickly and correctly when the time comes.
Newman also recommends everyone to gather some basic survival tools to use in an emergency. He said people should look online for a survival kit and read reviews to decide what’s best for your needs. If they don’t know where to start, the basics include:
- Bottled water to take with you during the evacuation or a water sanitizer to ensure access to potable water.
- A powerful flashlight.
- Something to generate warmth in case the weather turns cold.
- emergency blankets.
- Multipurpose tools with jackknives and other tools.
GeneratorTools.com encourages people to think proactively during the summer wildfire season:
- Gather important documents in a fireproof box or easy-to-carry case.
- Make all necessary medications easily accessible.
- Consider buying a weather radio.
Stafford also recommends taking advantage of the Forest Service website’s resources and these tips for protecting your home:
- Use fire-resistant landscaping to prevent the spread of wildfires.
- Use fireproof building materials such as certain roofing, wall materials, and windows to reduce a home’s risk.
- Improve access for emergency responders with clear street signs and addresses, and accessible roads.
She also encourages people to keep up to date with current fire activity on the Forest Service website or social media pages.