Since the Labor Day wildfires of 2011, many communities have begun taking it upon themselves to make their homes safer in the event of another wildfire. One of those places is Steiner Ranch, a planned community near Lake Travis, in the Hill Country outside of Austin.
Recently a group of volunteers, firefighters and residents got together to clean brush and dead trees from the woods surrounding the community.
“As far as we’re aware of this is the first program of its kind in Texas, definitely in Travis County,” says John Durham, assistant fire chief for Lake Travis. Durham’s team came equipped with chain saws, a Bobcat and a large dumpster to clear the undergrowth and deadfall. Once its collected, it will be taken to a composting company that volunteered to take care of the trees for free.
“What we’re doing on Varner Court specifically is working behind these homes, many of which were lost last year and are in the process of being rebuilt and reoccupied,” says Durham. “We are out in the actual interface, the wildland interface primarily removing dead and down vegetation – stuff that was burned and laying on the ground.”
Natasha Collmann started the Steiner Ranch Firewise Committee after last Labor Day’s wildfires destroyed 25 homes and damaged scores of others in the community.
“I think the fires brought to light that we really need to be actively involved in what’s happening out here,” Collmann says.
You see, part of the appeal of living in Steiner Ranch is not only Lake Travis but the greenbelt that many homes back up to. Residents get to live relatively close to Austin with all the modern conveniences, but are surrounded by what’s normally a lush and vibrant landscape – full of vegetation and wildlife.
But because of last year’s drought, it was parched and dangerously susceptible to catching fire.
Durham’s team is hoping to get rid of what he calls wildfire fuel, and he says wildfire conditions this summer aren’t much better.
“There’s a lot of dead vegetation that’ll be out there for many years,” Durham says. “There’s no way to get it out of there. It’ll be there until it falls and rots.”
Durham says there’s no way to clear all of the fuel from behind these homes. It’s just one of the dangers of living out in Steiner Ranch.
The memory of last year’s fires is still vivid for many of the residents here. Shannon Hardt and his family had moved in three years before last Labor Day.
“It was around three or four o’clock when we started seeing smoke,” Hardt remembers.
“We went to our back porch, which is on the greenbelt, and saw flames shooting up out of the trees in the back of the greenbelt, with what had to have been a forty mile an hour wind blowing right in our face. By the time we had grabbed a few things and gotten the dog and the guinea pig, thick smoke was everywhere and there was ash falling from the sky.”
Hardt and his wife were allowed back in the following day, but there home was gone.
“I think the only thing standing was the fireplace,” Hardt says. “We had this white brick fireplace that nobody liked. That was the only thing that survived, of course.”
Like many residents affected by the fires in Steiner Ranch, Hardt was able to quickly settle a claim with his insurance company and begin rebuilding.
His family moved into their new home two weeks ago. Hardt said going through the fire still seems surreal—but he feels like a changed person as a result.
“Going through this experience and having all this support from everyone in the neighborhood and the community has just been amazing,” he says. “And it has deepened my sense of community.”
The brush collection in Steiner Ranch is far from over. The community’s Firewise Committee says it will continue to work on clearing the greenbelt throughout the community.
Andy Uhler is a reporter with KUT News.
This is part of a series on the Labor Day wildfires as part of a special project with KUT, Forged in Flames.
On Tuesday, September 4 at 3 p.m., KUT 90.5 FM will air a special one-hour documentary telling the story of the fires. It will air again Wednesday, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. You can listen on air and online, and stay tuned for more this week.