Estimated 17 min reading time.
Welcome to the USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I’m your host, Teresa Neal. On this episode, we are discussing wildfire and how the Austin Fire Department is working with the community to teach them about wildfire and how to keep themselves and their community safer.
Our guest is Justice Jones. He’s on a mission to realign human culture with the fire environments we live in and are inextricably connected to. In his role, Justice serves as the wildfire mitigation officer for the city of Austin and Austin Fire Department’s Wildfire Division, where he has helped lead Austin and the surrounding area to embrace wildfire preparedness and become rapidly fire adapted.
Most recently, Austin became the largest municipality in the country to adopt the ICC Wildland-Urban Interface Code ensuring sustainable wildfire resilience is built into Austin’s future. Welcome Justice. Thank you for joining us.
Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be here.
Can you tell us about your position at Austin Fire?
Certainly. I joined Austin Fire Department in 2013 on the heels of the worst fire season in Texas history and helped start the Wildfire Division, which was 1 of the first municipal wildfire divisions in a fire department in Texas. At that time, Austin and Travis County was struggling with how to confront the threat of wildfire, and we decided the best approach would be to move forward with the development of a Community Wildfire Protection Plan that was based on the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.
So that was my initial task with joining the Austin Fire Department, is to bring everybody together around a plan and a common understanding of what wildfire risk was so we could move forward together.
And how has your state or community been impacted by wildfire recently?
Yeah, in 2011 we had the worst wildfire season in Texas history, and right down the road from us in Bastrop, Texas, we lost 2,000 homes to a major wildfire. At the same time, fires were burning in and around Austin and causing significant home losses.
So, I refer back to 2011 as kind of the dawn of wildfire awareness in Austin. It had happened everywhere else in Texas, but it hadn’t really struck the state capital until that year. Since then we’ve had hit-or-miss fire seasons. The fire cycle in Texas is driven by predominantly long-term drought cycles.
Unlike some of the other areas in the country where they’ll have an annual wildfire season — you can just count on it — ours are usually years apart, which creates its owns challenges. But the 2011 fire season was really the worst fire season in history and set us on that path to having to confront this issue.
So, I understand that Austin Fire is using new technologies to enhance their ability to communicate wildfire risk at the community meetings using a Simtable. Can you tell us more about that technology?
Yeah, we recognize that technology is gonna be 1 of the keys to our success in reaching the broadest population at risk possible.
And 1 of the ways is — because we don’t have a fire season every single year to illustrate how big of an impact these wildfires can have on community — is through the use of simulation tables, like the wildfire simulation table we use in Austin. And that allows us to create a model of a community in a controlled environment — to emulate the topography, the fuel, the weather and the housing, and then let homeowners see firsthand how a wildfire would potentially impact their community, how quickly it could spread across the landscape, and to help them understand the priorities they need to take before, during and after a wildfire so they can really grasp the consequences and gravities of something that’s mostly abstract to most people.
Very few people in the country have actually witnessed firsthand a wildfire. And so, this really helps them viscerally understand how wildfire is gonna impact them when they see their community threatened or even burned through 1 of these simulations. It’s very impactful to watch people’s demeanor and how they’re affected by this, but it also creates a gap of concern and awareness where we can then couple that message with proactive measures they could take.
Yeah, it would definitely be difficult to get people to pay attention if it’s not every year. It’s not like a California and Alaska, places where this is a common occurrence to keep the energy up, to make things better or actually even to pay the money to make your home better, more fire-safe when it could happen sometime in the future.
1 of the ways where we keep that front and center in people’s awareness is by doing a lot of prescribed burning. So, with our prescribed burning, we’re accomplishing our land management objectives and restoring ecosystems.
But I think equally important, we’re reminding people we live in a fire-adapted ecosystem, and just because we’re embracing fire on our terms, it really speaks to the nature of that ecosystem that it can occur under extreme conditions as well. And so, putting smoke in the air is part of our strategy of maintaining that community awareness in between fire seasons.
And so, that’s been a really valuable tool for us.
So, I wanted to ask you, when you said, "put smoke in the air," do you have a problem? Do you have issues? I’ve heard from other fire departments that they’ve said the prescribed burning — that they don’t — usually they haven’t done it or they’re afraid to start it because their communities get up-in-arms about smoke in the air.
And we know that there are people who have health risks already, and then the smoke just exacerbates it. But how do you get around that? Or do you have that same type of problem in Austin?
Yeah, it’s a universal problem, and the way that we’ve approached that is depending on the audience we’re communicating to.
And so, if you’re a homeowner, 1 of the tactics for us helping people understand how fires — prescribed fires are conducted, how much science and rigorous analysis goes into that process, is by inviting them to prescribed burns. And so very often when we do a prescribed burn, we’ll invite members of the community to observe that burn.
They get to see fire behavior in action. They get to see firefighters training and learning from that fire behavior. But they also get an understanding of the scale of fire and that we can use it as an effective, safe tool, but only with the support of the public and our leadership in the community.
And so ironically, we get a demand from the public to burn more than we’re able to given the windows we have when burning is ideal. And so that’s the kind of pressure that you want in a community and in a fire department that’s trying to expand its community’s prescribed fire program, is we have this grassroots level of support because we’ve exposed people to the positive effects of wildfire.
And I’ll use a poignant example. 1 of the communities that was impacted during 2011 is named Steiner Ranch. And there were numerous people who lost their home in that community to a very ferocious wildfire. We invited those same residents to participate with us in a burn a few years after the fire, and it was right below their community.
It could have elicited a lot of anxiety and stress in the community, but instead we said come join us. Learn about this tool, learn that not all fire is bad, and that we have to learn to embrace fire as a resource, as well as recognize it as a potential threat. And so we had 20 homeowners from a community that had had losses at a safe location observing the wildfire.
And at 1 point, you could register there was a high level of concern. And so what I did is I handed 1 of the residents my radio and I said, “I want you to let me know when it reaches this point and when it reaches this point,” and then very quickly they became part of the prescribed burn in a real way and were engaged in it.
And at the end of the burn, what they said is, “Can we please come to the next prescribed fire?” These were people who suffered the most catastrophic losses associated with wildfire who are then becoming advocates because they’ve seen that full spectrum. And I think that’s really important in our messaging.
When things are high fire danger, we often paint a very dim picture, and that may be reality, and that’s important to let people know what the potential impacts of a wildfire might be. But we very seldom couple that with the benefits of fire. And I think if we’re really going to solve this, people have to have that full spectrum of awareness of how wildfire relates to us.
That is awesome. So how is Austin Fire using unmanned aircrafts?
We use it in a number of ways. 1 of the primary directives in wildland fire is to make sure that you have a lookout on all of your fires, prescribed fires and wildfires. And so we use our UAVs as lookouts when we’re conducting prescribed fires and when we’re on real wildfires.
All of our units are staffed with UAVs, and we have trained resources that respond to those wildfires from the wildfire division and from the department as a whole. I mean, that really creates some situational awareness. We’re also exploring using these tools to assess wildfire risk during non-wildfire events to preplan how we’re gonna respond to neighborhoods in the event of wildfire so we can be most efficient and have the most accountability of our firefighters and the public and public safety and other first responders.
We’re using them to monitor areas along roadways where fuel encroaches along the road. It’s also an evacuation route, so we can avoid entrapments and things of that nature.
And then we’re finding creative ways to help our partners with fire safety, like monitoring some of our brush piles for our solid waste facility that turns organic mitigation byproducts like brush and lawn clippings from people doing work in their yard into composted soil that they could put back on the landscape that doesn’t increase fire risk.
And so, lots of innovative ways to use this technology. And we want to make sure that our primary use of it is for public and firefighter safety. And so there are frontline lookouts in these events, and that’s a really important tool to add to the arsenal.
Do you see science and technology as an important part of the cohesive strategy?
I see it as the most essential part of the cohesive strategy in that our credibility lies in making informed, science-based decisions. We’re asking people to do things that have an impact on the environment, on their home, their property value, their landscape, and their safety. And so those have to be based in science — and rigorous science — to ensure that we’re doing everything the right way and to the best of our ability.
But I also think that there needs to be room for innovation and piloting new methods that can be reinforced and researched and solidified as a best practice. So, it’s that combination of rigorous scientific analysis with innovation that I think is gonna get us closer to where we need to be.
And data is part of that science. And so, utilizing geographic information systems to create a picture of what the wildfire risk or story you’re trying to tell in your community is, is very powerful and it’s driven by science. But it creates a picture, and that is what really affects people’s hearts and minds and helps them understand an issue, is to take that rigorous science and simplify it down to a picture that tells a story.
Because I think at the end of the day, that’s what this is really about. We’re trying to tell our current story and change the narrative about how we relate to wildfire, and science can help reinforce those changes that we need to make and those cultural shifts that will have an impact in lots of ways.
And so, I think science is our best ally, and convincing an educated public that we need to make some major changes in the way that we’re living on this land and in our communities.
So, you said piloting. Is Austin Fire piloting any technology?
Absolutely, we’re constantly exploring that edge of technology and trying to find innovative solutions for our community.
Some examples of how we use and are utilizing technology, is we’ve mapped wildfire risk in some unique — what I think are unique — ways. Most of the fire behavior is quantified on fire intensity, and so it’s that big wall of flame. The thing that can be very distracting, kind of the moth to the flame.
But we haven’t paid a lot of attention to fast-moving grass fires that are wind-driven until very recently. So, Austin’s modeled our wildfire risk where we look at both those high-intensity events that are low frequency, and those high-frequency, lower-intensity events that can be fast-moving grass fires, like what we saw in the Marshall Fire in Colorado that took very little wildland fuel to convert into a conflagration.
And so, part of what our risk assessment approach has done is help level the field of risk perception. And so, it used to only be 1 side of town that was considered at risk that was also the affluent side of town because people can afford to live on hills and up in the topography in that part of town.
It was minimizing the risk to the eastern crest of Austin, which is a grassland, older communities, our more diverse communities and, be honest, our more vulnerable communities. And their risk wasn’t being recognized, and until we just used the data to help level that playing field and tell the story.
We’ve also worked with groups like Headwaters Economics to develop a wildfire vulnerability viewer. And so, this is a geographic information system-based tool that allows us to understand where our populations that are not only at risk for wildfire, but would have the hardest time recovering and being resilient if a wildfire impacted them.
The new science is telling us that structure-to-structure ignition is our main problem during these wildfires. Well, where you see the highest probability of structure-to-structure ignition is in high-density neighborhoods, which also tend to be lower-income neighborhoods. And so, there’s a very unique threat facing those communities.
And it’s different than somebody who has a large lot property with a big house on it. And so we have to align our strategies with the needs and vulnerability of the community. And that data and science has helped us get more on target with reaching those underserved populations as well as the traditionally perceived risk areas.
Yeah, that’s great. I love that what you said is that it’s not only that anybody could lose their home, but there’s specific places where it would be a lot more difficult for them to become rehoused or if they’re renting or to have something to be rebuilt and to take that into consideration when you’re planning, because I do think that the big events are the things that catch everyone’s attention. But it’s those little things that have the economic and the people impact even more so.
Yeah, I think that’s really important, Teresa. We focus a lot on the physical elements of wildfire and how it affects us, but what this really is, is a cultural issue, and it’s gonna require a culture shift to really have any long-term lasting effect in reducing wildfire risk. And so, how do we go about changing people’s hearts and minds and empowering them that they can actually do something to mitigate the threat against this force of nature that we’ve sent the message often that we’re powerless against. And we know now that that’s simply not true. This is 1 of those natural hazards where we can greatly diminish the risk just by taking simple steps if people understand those steps.
So, it’s really about changing people’s minds, and then we’ll see that reflected in the built environment and in the way we manage our resources. But I think that’s our first step, is helping people understand how they fit into this wildfire equation.
How have you worked with communities in Austin to support their efforts to become more fire adapted?
Yeah, in lots of ways. 1 of the things that we’ve done that I think might be unique to at least Texas in some areas is we recognize we have hundreds of communities at risk. And to be effective and reaching all of those communities with the limited resources and staff that we had, we wanted to initiate a grassroots approach to wildfire preparedness.
And so, we formed a Firewise Alliance of all the communities that were actively engaged in mitigating their risk, and what we realized is they were able to mentor other neighbors and other communities along their path as effectively as we are because they had the firsthand experience. They’re doing it and they’ve done it.
And so, as we have new communities of interest who approach the fire department or 1 of our partners and say, "Hey, we’re ready to do something about it," we introduce them to the other communities in Austin that have already been on this path that can help them move their efforts forward with that grassroots support of neighbors helping neighbors.
And they do things like conduct home assessment training for themselves, and we participate in that and then they go out and they do assessments in their community, and it creates a multiplier effect for us. So I think, not to underestimate the grassroots power of communities coming together around this issue, and the fringe benefit of that is when we have important initiatives that are going, say, to City Council for adoption, we don’t ask people to show up on those nights. They show up and they testify that wildfire is a priority for them and their community, and they represent 10,000 voters that need you to support this initiative without the encouragement or behest of the fire department. And so, it’s had a lot of fringe benefits.
We support those communities. We meet with them on a regular basis and bring in outside resources that can bolster their efforts, other city departments or county departments. But then they also — fringe benefit — is they show up for us, and that’s really been a win-win relationship. And so, that’s 1 of the ways we’re supporting our Austin communities.
We also host an annual wildfire symposium that brings everybody together around this issue, and it’s typically a combination of city/county cooperators and community leaders. And so, they can talk to the person in public works who’s managing their evacuation corridor, and they can talk to somebody in Parks and Rec who manages the neighborhood park and ask them questions or solicit help.
And so, it’s really become a strong networking resource, and a peer-to-peer learning resource that exceeds the capacity we have to reach people on a 1-on-1 basis. And then we have broader efforts to educate the public. We’ve got 155 people a day moving to Austin. The thought that our small division could really touch each of those new arrivals is misguided.
And so, we find ways at a larger scale to reach folks as they’re coming into town through our marketing campaigns, our billboards, news media and other mechanisms like that.
Do you have a relationship with realtors or is — I don’t know if it’s home buying or there is renting in that area, but any relationship with them to also help them understand?
Yeah, Austin is about 50% renters now and rental properties. And so that has been a real challenge and I think that’s a challenge, you know, globally, to reach that ephemeral population. And I think it’s similar to what people experience in more resort-like communities where they have vacation homes or weekend homes. And that can create some real challenges. We have worked with Austin Board of Realtors. We actually hosted 1 of our symposiums at their facility and included them in the conversations around adopting the Wildland-Urban Interface Code as we did with our home builders association and other community grassroots groups.
And I think those sidebar conversations have been really important to build support and to reach people as they’re coming into Austin. It used to be that home builders and developers didn’t want to acknowledge that wildfire risk was an issue. Now, they’re promoting their development as a fire-wise or a fire-safe site because they’re building those best practices on the front end.
And so, it’s become more of a marketing tool for builders to be fire safe, which, we like that aspect of it, and if it works, it works. So, we’ll take all the help that we can get.
I was gonna ask you about the builders too, because I know that, you know, we’ve had that not only with wildfire, but even with residential sprinklers that builders would push back on it, and now you see that as your home is sprinklered. That is now a selling point, and that’s great. It’s great. And like you said, we’ll take it any way that you wanna — however you wanna do it. Let’s just get it out there.
Yeah. And we are a capitalistic society, so how do we make wildfire safety marketable? And there’s been some good science to support the cost associated with implementing these best practices.
1 thing that really helped us in our discussion with the home builders and the adoption of the Wildland-Urban Interface Code is long before we move forward with any kind of draft of the code, we worked with our Austin green builders association to develop what’s called a star rating program for wildfire safety.
And it’s in line with other energy efficiency practices. And so, what that did is it gave developers an opportunity to select wildfire safety as 1 of the ways they can achieve that rating, and it gives them some discounts on their permit fees, and they get to the bragging rights that this home has been built to wildfire safety standard.
1 of our biggest adversaries when we first went into conversation with our home builders association, said flat out, we can’t afford to do this and you’re not gonna convince me otherwise. And I had a spreadsheet of all the homes that had participated in that program and I just slid it across the table.
And he had already built 1,200 homes to that specification without really realizing we’re talking about the same thing, because that was just incentive for him. There was no extra cost or it wasn’t punitive, and he looked at the sheet and he flipped through and he looked to the builders on each side of him and he said, “I think we can do this.”
Because he already had been doing it voluntarily. And I think that’s a really important lesson that I learned, moving forward with the code adoption, is, if you can illustrate how it looks on the ground and the applicability before you try to convince somebody to spend more money to do something, it really has a positive effect on the conversations that you need to have moving what can be very contentious effort forward.
Texas is a private property right state. No one wants extra code here. And so, to be able to adopt a rigorous code like this really necessitated having a lot of those conversations on the front end and illustrating that we can do this. Here’s where we’ve already done it and we can keep doing it, and that’s gonna help us arrive where we need to be as a fire-adapted community.
That’s excellent. What advice would you give our audience today about how they can start supporting their community’s efforts? Like what are some first steps that you would suggest for them?
Yeah. I think the first step and most important step is to understand wildfire risk, and not just wildfire risk from a residential standpoint — all the values that wildfire threatens in your community, because this isn’t just a fire issue, it’s a watershed issue, it’s a forest health issue, it’s a habitat issue, it’s an economic and sustainability issue. And so, if we’re just framing this from the standpoint of fire safety, we’ve got a really small net. And I think what we need to do is broaden that net and show the true impacts of wildfire, which are very broad, and most communities don’t feel that impact until the firefighters there to fight the fire have left.
And so, I think relating wildfire risk to all the values of your community will help you build a bigger net and a broader group of support. So when you are asking for folks to come together to support an initiative like adopting a Community Wildfire Protection Plan, or rigorous code, you have advocates versus adversaries or people who just don’t think this relates to me and why should I show up and support this effort?
So, I think that’s 1 of the most important things we can do is help people understand how wildfire relates to them and their values, not just our values. So, for the firefighters, our first value is always gonna be life safety, and that’s why we get up in the morning.
Not everybody shares that same level of urgency. They might wake up in the morning and they have 1 job, is to make sure this endangered species is there the next day and the day after that for all posterity. Helping them understand how wildfire could threaten that habitat and endangered species changes the conversation to, now, this is a collective effort that we need to work together to solve, not your effort.
I think the second level of advice is tied to that is this isn’t an issue the fire service can solve alone. No local, state or federal fire agency has all the solutions because we don’t own all the problem. And so, extending that net to other cooperators who have a role in wildfire safety is really part of the solution.
Like the National Fire Academy says, in Austin, we say wildfire is everyone’s fight. And if you don’t understand your role in that fight, talk to us and we’ll help you make that connection.
Well, do you have anything else you’d like to add? Anything, any words of wisdom?
Well, I think, if anything, that I’ve learned working at the local community level — and I’ve worked at the state and federal level — that it takes a community to prepare for wildfire.
It takes grassroots-level support. It takes agency and cooperators showing up and contributing their part. And equally as important, it takes leadership intent. And so, I would leave everybody with today, is to seek buy-in at the highest level possible so that can trickle down to you and your cooperators and the public.
And you have a strong leadership intent from whatever level that you’re operating at, that you know you have support. And this isn’t your idea. This is what has been identified as the needs of your community. It’s not a personal agenda, it’s a community-wide issue, and we have to work together to solve it because our leadership said this is what I’m asking you to do.
Thank you so much, Justice, for coming on and for talking to us about this. It’s fascinating, and I love what Austin’s doing. Faith Berry told me that if I heard about what Austin was doing, I would just be so inspired about wildfire safety and it’s very true. Y’all doing great work and we’ll want to hear from you more in the future if that’s OK.
When you tell us about some of the other things that you’re doing and how the roads that you’ve pioneered made it easier for somebody else to step into that space.
Yeah, I would be happy to visit with you again and I appreciate all the great work that the National Fire Academy has done to help educate the public and firefighters on how to adapt to this changing environment.
So, thank you for the work that you do.
Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to the USFA Podcast. And thank you to Justice Jones for joining us today. If you want to learn more about wildfire, please visit us at usfa.fema.gov/wui. If you have a topic you would like to hear more about or you would like to be a guest on the podcast, please email us at email@example.com.