Steiner Ranch Focuses on Rebuilding and Prevention
Sept. 4 will be the anniversary of the wildfires that tore through Central Texas, burning nearly 2,000 homes, leveling swaths of forest and causing firefighters, county officials and homeowners to rethink how they manage their land.
Since then, many communities have begun taking it upon themselves to make their homes safer from a possible future wildfire, including one in Steiner Ranch.
A little more than 30 people assembled recently in a cul-de-sac in Steiner Ranch, a planned community near Lake Travis, from student council volunteers from the local high school to highly trained firefighters.
“As far as we’re aware of this is the first program of its kind in Texas, definitely in Travis County,” said John Durham, an assistant fire chief in Lake Travis.
His team came equipped with chain saws, a Bobcat and a large dumpster, to help these volunteers cut down dead trees and supply them to a composting company that offered to take them 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,” Durham said. “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.”
Nathasha Collmann started the Steiner Ranch Firewise Committee after last year’s Labor Day 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 said.
You see, part of the appeal of living in Steiner Ranch is not only nearby 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; he said wildfire conditions this summer aren’t much better.
“There’s a lot of dead vegetation that’ll be out there for many years,” he said. “There’s no way to get it out of there. It’ll be there until it falls and rots.”
There’s no way to clear all of the fuel from behind these homes,” he said. It’s just one of the dangers of living out in Steiner Ranch.
Shannon Hardt and his family had moved in three years before last Labor Day.
“It was around 3 or 4 o’clock when we started seeing smoke,” Hardt said. “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 40-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 didn’t find what they were looking for.
“I think the only thing standing was the fireplace,” he said. “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. He and his family moved into their new home two weeks ago.
Hardt said the day of 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 said. “And it has deepened my sense of community, I guess.”
The brush collection in Steiner Ranch is far from over. The Firewise Committee says it will continue to clear brush in the greenbelt throughout the community.