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Natural fires are necessary for the environment, but the City of Austin manufactures them instead

Gabriel C. Pérez
The City of Austin annually sets controlled fires to support biodiversity and improve groundwater.

If no one lived in Austin, fires would happen pretty regularly in prairies across the area. They're beneficial. They help promote new plant growth, which then helps improve the quality of groundwater.

But people do live here, and wildfires would threaten our way of life, so we take measures to prevent them.

We still want the benefits fires bring, though. So, the City of Austin sets what are called "prescribed burns" once a year. The burns improve the quality of the groundwater that feeds into the Edwards Aquifer. The aquifer then leads into the freshwater wells in Travis and Hays counties, as well as creeks and Barton Springs.

"Prescribed fires have a lot of different roles, but generally they're seen as a benefit to biodiversity and to the resilience of a natural area," said Kevin Thuesen, who manages water quality for the city.

These fires also help to prevent dangerous wildfires by getting rid of brush that could ignite fires under hot conditions.

This week, Austin Water prescribed a burn for 50 acres of land off MoPac and I-45.

The area in Austin where the January 2023 prescribed burn took place.
City of Austin
The area in Austin where the January 2023 prescribed burn took place.

Thuesen said city staff meticulously plans how and when each fire will happen — taking weeks to train on how to control the fire, factoring in the weather and estimating the fire's effects.

An escaped prescribed burn led to a wildfire in Bastrop State Park last year, which burned 812 acres and forced families to evacuate. Thuesen said to ensure something like that doesn't happen in Austin, the city surveys the environment they're burning and is mindful of the kind of fuel they use.

"They (park officials in Bastrop) were working in that piney woods area with a lot of large timber on the ground and a very different type of fuel," he said. "What we're working with is much more grass, and the grass is obviously nascent. It's brown, it's not a wide living grass, and there's some brush. And after this prescribed fire, we would expect less brush, more grass and wildflowers."

The city's prescribed burn this week took about two days to conduct. Austin Water along with the city's fire department burned the 50 acres of land in 10 five-acre segments. That way, they were dealing with a bunch of small, maintainable fires instead of one large 50-acre fire.

And those small fires will help prevent bigger ones down the line.

"If there is a wildfire season this summer, [Austin] is probably going to be less impacted, less likely to carry fire in the future," Thuesen said.

Correction: This story has been corrected to show the city burned a 50-acre fire, not a 150-acre fire.

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Haya Panjwani is a general assignment reporter, with a focus on Travis County. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @hayapanjw.
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