What to Do Ahead of Wildfire Season
Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS) is the lead agency for the state when it comes to fighting wildfires and helping Texans reduce their vulnerability to these blazes. TFS reports 80 percent of wildfires occur within two miles of a community. The forest service notes that no part of Texas is immune to wildfire.
According to the forest service, in 2022 there were 12,411 wildfires that burned 650,712 acres across Texas. That is more than double the number in 2021, when the state responded to 6,039 fires involving 158,612 acres. The forest service cites Texas’ ever-changing land use, climate, and population as reasons for increased wildfire risk. However, there are strategies and programs to limit the effects of fires on schools.
Wildland fire has historically been a manageable part of natural ecosystems. During the past two decades, however, it has grown into a public safety concern for a range of reasons: drought conditions, warmer temperatures, changes to the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), and declining forest health. Decision makers at the federal, state, local, and school district levels are taking a proactive approach and learning from the challenges faced by Colorado and other Western states in recent years.
Wildfires are unpredictable. So, the first step in wildfire preparedness is knowing how to reduce risk. Start a simple assessment, similar to how you evaluate other hazards. Ask yourself, “Where could things go wrong?” Your safety and security committee can work with your local emergency management or fire prevention specialist for guidance. Fund members who have questions can request all-hazards emergency operations plan templates.
As a part of the planning process, the committee should conduct a risk assessment to determine the likelihood of a wildfire threat. History and location are important factors to consider as well as input from local fire authorities. Additional data for a risk assessment can be found at FEMA’s data base of Fire Incidents for States and Counties, which provides a list of reported fires in your area. The risk of wildfire at a specific site will depend on factors such as the amount and type of vegetation, surrounding structures, construction materials used, the topography of the surrounding area, and seasonal conditions such as drought, thunderstorms, and wind.
The safety and security committee must define the boundaries of the district and obtain a community wildfire risk assessment. From the risk assessment, the committee creates a multi-year action plan to identify and prioritize actions to reduce ignition risk to facilities.
Schools should work with their safety and security team to develop a hazard-specific annex that outlines wildfire vulnerability and response. Your annex should include the five phases of emergency management, identify evacuation routes, and detail mitigation and preparedness strategies. Coordination with local, regional, and state emergency responders is essential to developing plans as well as developing response strategies that take into account life safety and property preservation.
The National Fire Protection Association offers online training. The training covers how to evaluate your community’s strengths and vulnerabilities to wildfire. You can use that knowledge to inform your assessment.
Once you identify the risk, you can implement controls to mitigate loss.
- Be aware of railroad tracks near schools. Train wheels can spark on tracks and start fires.
- Create a defensible space around a facility by using the National Fire Protection Association’s zone concept. You will create an empty space between shrubs and trees to reduce the chance of flames leaping between them.
- Choose fire-resistant plants for landscaping. That includes plants with a high-moisture content to withstand high temperatures and slow-growing plants to reduce fuel for flames.
- Keep trees pruned approximately 6 to 10 feet off the ground and remove dead branches. This not only mitigates fire risk but also improves school facility security.
- Mow grassy areas regularly. Grass should never be more than 4 inches tall.
- Remove dead and dry plants, fallen leaves, pinecones, dead tree branches, and other vegetations that could fuel a fire.
- Have water sources available to help extinguish hot spots if it is safe to do so.
There are countless ways a wildfire can start. Here are actions you and your staff can take to prevent the most common fire starters:
- Comply with burn bans.
- Protect safety chains on trailers and service vehicles that can drag and send sparks flying.
- Secure welding and mechanical areas and agriculture facilities to prevent equipment sparks.
- Check tires regularly to prevent tire blow outs. Rims can hit pavement and spark. Include buses, administrative and event vehicles, patrol cars, and support services vehicles in your inspections.
- Secure all tools and equipment that can fall off a truck and cause sparks.
- Avoid parking in tall, dry grass. Fires could be ignited by catalytic converters, which are attached to vehicle undercarriages and sometimes reach up to 2,000 degrees. This tip is particularly important when designating additional parking areas for school events such as athletic contests and graduations.
- Remove anything that can spark when mowing or weed eating, such as rocks and pieces of metal.
- Keep pest control up to date to prevent rodents from chewing through wires.
Wildfire prevention and mitigation strategies may vary based on location. Collaboration with first responder agencies and local, regional, and state emergency management partners can help districts develop plans that best meet their needs.
This article was originally published in February 2023. It has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Have Safety and Security or Emergency Management Questions?
Members with Auto, Liability, Property, and Workers’ Compensation coverage can request training and support from their risk solutions consultant.
Madelin Jones joined the TASB Risk Management Fund in 2022, bringing more than 6 years of experience in the news industry creating daily content. Jones is a communications specialist for the risk solutions team focused on giving readers the information they want and need. At the Fund, she works with experts to write and promote content to help employers prevent loss from workplace accidents, employee illness, property damage, and cybercrime.