Austin Uses Code to Protect Against Wildfire
Austin became the first major city in Texas to adopt a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) code in response to wildfire risk.
Austin based their new ordinance on the International Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Code. While the city was adequately prepared to respond to wildfires, an internal audit suggested that more could be done to reduce the risk of wildfires, largely in areas outside the urban core.
The city auditor suggested the city adopt requirements for fire-resistant materials on new construction and renovated buildings near potentially fire-prone brush and vegetation. That covers an area that’s roughly two-thirds of the city.
These requirements follow fire management best practices that have been adopted throughout the United States using other fire codes, such as those put out by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Back in June 2019, the Austin Public Safety Commission had recommended tighter wildfire protection standards for structures built between the city’s wildlands and urban center and endorsed the adoption of a WUI code. In early April 2020, after four years of planning and preparation, the city council unanimously adopted the Wildland-Urban Interface Code.
According to Tara Lukasik of the ICC, the new WUI code requires that all new homes and businesses constructed near wildland areas be built with special ignition-resistant construction materials to protect them from burning embers. Embers often set structures ablaze in a wildfire when they fall on wooden roofs, blow in through vents, or lodge under boards.
The code also requires the safe storage of combustible materials like liquefied petroleum gas. Also, properties that are particularly vulnerable would be required to participate in diligent vegetation management. These include structures that are:
- Difficult to reach.
- Don’t have a water supply.
- Have an overgrowth of heavy fuels.
- Are located on steep slopes.
- Located adjacent to a 40-acre or larger wildland area.
These vulnerable properties must maintain a certain amount of defensible space cleared of brush and other fire fuel to make them easier to manage during a fire.
Existing homes and businesses would not be subject to new structural regulations, but homeowners may be required to comply with any updated maintenance policies such as vegetation management.
Properties would also be subject to the new standards for any portions undergoing a renovation. Austin’s WUI area includes 64 percent of the land within the city limits, broken down into four hazard severity zones: moderate, high, extreme, and preserves.
Nearly a third of the zone is identified as areas of extreme hazard severity, while an additional third is identified as preserve land. About 61 percent of the homes in Austin are within the wildland-urban interface, so this long-range planning will benefit a large portion of the City’s residents.
Mike Collignon is the executive director and cofounder of the Green Builder Coalition, a not-for-profit association dedicated to amplifying the voice of green builders and professionals to drive advocacy and education for more sustainable home building practices.