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City plans to establish wildfire mitigation division

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For more than a year, the City of Austin has been planning to come up with a plan to reduce the chance of wildfires in certain high-risk areas of the city. The idea is to prevent what happened near Bastrop from happening in Austin.

Currently there are two recommendations on how to go about handling mitigation plans. One plan comes from Austin Fire Department administration and one from Austin Firefighters Association.

"There's a time for talking about the stuff and there's a time for action on this issue," said President of the Austin Firefighters Association, Bob Nicks.

Nicks wants to see immediate funding that would begin to clear fire fuels, such as dry brush in western parts of the city. Nicks estimates that the city needs to invest $400,000 immediately to begin the process of mitigation. He says the city is far behind where it should be.

"I would estimate that we're nearly 5 to 10, maybe even 12 years behind in fuel mitigation. It's going to take an investment each year to get to the point where we need to be," Nicks said.

The plan put forth by AFD Chief, Rhoda Mae Kerr, would be implemented in two phases. Instead of focusing on mitigation right away, the first phase of chief Kerr's plan would invest a quarter of a million dollars to hire three employees to oversee what would be the Wildfire Mitigation Division and help develop a community plan.

Nicks says AFD could go ahead and begin mitigation, while still ironing out the planning over time.

"We've been planning for the last 15 months. We need some investment in actually mitigating some fuels," he said.

Chief Kerr says her plan will allow the city time to develop a plan that is effective in handling mitigation over the next budget year.

"We're all in agreement on what needs to be done. We just have different ideas in how we get there and how quickly we get there," Kerr said.

Nicks estimates, both plans would end up costing the same, around $2 million in the long run. As of Monday evening, city council had not approved the plan proposed by Chief Kerr. It is possible the $250,000 plan to hire new personnel and begin the first phase could be approved by Wednesday.

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