Natasha Collmann: I’m Natasha Collmann. I am with the Steiner Ranch Fire Wise Committee. I, kind of, I guess, started that up and am now chairing the Committee.
KUT News: And, how did that come about, was it because of the –
Collmann: Yeah, it’s been since the Labor Day fires. I had been involved or kind of looked into the Fire Wise program several years ago when we were, there was a fire over at the UT Golf Club which you may or may not remember in 2007, and so after that we kind of were concerned about our fire risk here at our, this was our new house, through the canyon because we back onto the preserve and realized that we probably, at some level, a pretty high level of risk. So, we had some conversations and there really wasn’t a lot of interest in getting something started at that time because people weren’t concerned.
Of course, after the Labor Day fires, the discussion started up again within my section of the neighborhood and so I had already talked to some of the HOA people and some of the Travis County people and I got started again talking with them and there was a lot more interest in getting things going within the neighborhood and, of course, they were very willing to step in and help us out getting things started and doing some programs around here, including fuel reduction programs, clearing out debris out of the preserve, we were able to do a work day back there and we’re not able to go in and cut anything in the preserve, but we work with the Travis County folks and we were able to schedule with them some time to go in and actually just pull out debris, because there was quite a bit that was just laying on the ground already.
KUT News: From what I understand from the folks that we talked to, I guess a lot of the fire folks, this was kind of an anomalous thing. The winds were so high. I mean, they were kind of saying it may be difficult to, you know, prepare for something like that, but I guess the idea is just to become more aware of things.
Collmann: I think so. I think that a lot of this, yeah, I mean, they just said it was the perfect storm of conditions that weekend, that day, and hopefully we never have the same set of conditions, the same drought conditions and the winds and the dry, you know, zero humidity in the air. But, you know, we live in Central Texas, we have cycles of drought and flood and we will have dry conditions again and it’s always hot and dry in the summertime here. So, really, what we’re trying to do is prepare homeowners so that they can do things around their home and around their yards to limit their exposure and also go through and do some fuel reduction in the green belts because, while we can’t fireproof the neighborhood or our homes, I mean, we certainly can limit our exposure and reduce our risk. So, that’s what we’re trying to get to. Pulling out fuels and hopefully, if there is another fire, hopefully it won’t be on that same scale, but we are able to contain it a lot more quickly because we’ve put some steps in place and put these measures in place to reduce our risk.
KUT News: Personally, why you did this, why did you want to get invested in something like this?
Collmann: Um, I guess it hit closest to home because the area that was hit by the fire over the Labor Day weekend was where we used to live. I mean, that was my, two doors down from our previous home, a home burned to the ground, several homes burned to the ground. So, it kind of hit very close to home, those were friends and neighbors and people that we knew and, again, we had moved here to the new house and had seen the fire at the UT Golf Club and that day the winds, there was another front blowing through and the winds were blowing away from the canyon, but as we watched it burn from our upstairs deck, we realized what our risk was had the winds been blowing the other direction, I don’t know that our home would be standing anymore. So, we had some concern and I knew who to talk to and just got involved and been trying to carry the, not carry the torch, but try and motivate getting some changes and some things happening since then.
KUT News: It is my understanding, from what Scott was saying, that the HOA is trying to help out, as well, but a lot of it is you guys kind of – volunteers figure things out, right?
Collmann: Yeah. You know, we’ve had several of our committee members go through some training with the fire department. We went to a summit in December and learned a lot about the program and a lot about what we can do as homeowners and as a neighborhood to work with some of these other agencies and what we can personally. So, there is a lot of collaborative effort here and I think we’re being held to, we’re kind of setting the example for some of the other neighborhoods and we have a large neighborhood here. There is a lot of people here, so we’ve got a lot of resources and I think that they are hoping that we can set the standard. I get lots of calls from other Fire Wise groups trying to start up similar things and asking how we got started or, you know, they are asking me for advice on how to get started and what we’ve been doing.
KUT News: And so is it one of those things where you have to work out a portion of HOA fees for this sort of thing or is it just –
Collmann: Um, no, right now we don’t have a budget, so really all we’re doing is working on just volunteer labor hours and donations. HOA has a little bit of leeway in their funds that they can try and help us out with some of the debris removal. But, we’re also trying to leverage some of the other opportunities that we have, like Travis Fire and Rescue recently hired on this hand crew and they’ve got some extra time, they are going to be able to help us out on our next work day, chipping up some of the debris. I think the HOA will probably provide a roll off dumpster because we don’t want to leave the mulch and the chips out there either because that is also flammable materials that dry out. So, we use, they will be cutting for us and running the chainsaws. We will be using our labor to pull the stuff out to the street. They will be chipping it for us and then we’ll have it hauled off. So, it’s a little bit of everything. We are trying to really leverage our resources and use whatever we can.
KUT News: Are you surprised at how much, I guess, it sounds like you’ve learned quite a bit about, you know, fire safety. Is it surprising that there is so much that goes into it?
Collmann: It is surprising, yeah, there is a lot of factors that go into it and we really, yeah, I’m learning from scratch, you know, working closely with John Durham from Travis Fire and Rescue. He has really been helpful getting us the information that we need and providing us contacts and other things that we need. In addition, though, I’m sorry, the Travis County Natural Resources Group, Rose Farmer and her group have been very, very helpful. You know, we’re limited in what we are able to do in the preserve and they are trying to work on getting some grant money; I think they applied for a FEMA grant and they are waiting to hear if they got that so that they can do similar fuel reduction programs and projects in the preserve. Right now, all we’re able to do is go in there and pull out anything that’s on the ground already, but we can’t do any cutting or anything in the preserve land and there is quite a few homes that back on directly on the preserve, mine included.
KUT News: So that’s obviously concerning?
KUT News: I know that some of the, there was some concern that came out of this fire, especially up here, was kind of an entry and exit points. Is that something that you guys have talked about and had to, kind of, think about a little more?
Collmann: Yeah, we have. There is a lot of concern that, you know, when we evacuated here we were sitting in traffic for two plus hours getting out of the neighborhood. It really brought to light and hit home for a lot of people that we only have one way in and out of this neighborhood, even though there is kind of two exits, it all has to go through one central point. And so we’ve been discussing with Sarah Eckharts, the Commissioner’s office what our options are for getting an alternative exit out of the neighborhood and it’s really difficult because we kind of a peninsula, we, you know, we have a lake on all three sides. We’re completely surrounded and then 620. So, we don’t have a lot of options for getting alternative exits out of the neighborhood. We’re, you know, the terrain to try and connect us over with River Place is really steep and not very, it would be really difficult to build a road through there, plus if it were emergency only, we may be putting folks at more, in a more dangerous position then being on the main roads through Steiner.
Luckily, we have some very wide, you know, the main road is very wide, we can actually stagger traffic through there. So, we’re hoping that, even though we won’t have an alternative exit likely through the neighborhood, that we can stage some evacuation if we’re in that situation again and we can move people to safe points like the school, the golf club and some other areas that are very well protected until such time that the roads clear and we get them out of the neighborhood.
KUT News: What was you, did you guys personally have to get out of here?
Collmann: Yes. Yeah, and we were far enough away that we were able to, kind of, pack up and had time to grab our important papers and pictures and, of course, the animals and the kids and loaded up the car and had several calls from other neighbors to, you know, can you please grab my dog? Can you get my cat? Can you, you know, so we were collecting animals and making sure everybody was taken care of. And, so we had enough time to get that done and we sat in traffic for about two hours trying to get out of the neighborhood.
KUT News: And did you see the fire at that point?
Collmann: Yes. I got, as we were pulling out, I mean, you could see the smoke on the main road, on Clement Park Road through the neighborhood and then as we got out onto 620 and we were sitting in traffic on 620, in the rearview mirror we were starting to see some, I think that they were the homes, as soon as a home was engulfed, you could see a huge pillar of flames leaping up and so we were able to see some of that from 620 and take some pictures of that when we were leaving. It was very, not scary because I didn’t feel like we were in eminent danger but, of course, it was just sad to think that that was somebody’s home going up.
KUT News: And especially, you said you guys used to live right over there?
Collmann: We did and, of course, we didn’t really realize where the fire was when we were leaving and then, of course, in the days following and we’re watching aerial photos that were coming out while we’re still evacuated. We were very concerned for some friends and watching the photos, you know, you could see which homes were still standing and which ones were gone.
KUT News: A lot of folks said that they were watching CNN and could, you know, identify their house or their -
KUT News: It’s just like, it’s got to be such a weird feeling.
Collmann: It was very, yeah, it was very strange to know whose homes were there and whose weren’t and a lot of friends who were, kind of, on the edge who really didn’t know because, you know, if you didn’t see an aerial photo of your section of the street, you weren’t sure but they knew they were close and it was really stressful for those folks. Several of our good friends were not sure if their house was still there.
KUT News: How long did it take them to get back? Were they allowed in the next day?
Collmann: No, we were out for two and a half days. We evacuated on Sunday and were let back into the neighborhood on, I think, late Tuesday.
KUT News: And what did you guys do?
Collmann: My family, we have family, extended family that lives in town so we went and stayed with my in-laws.
KUT News: Yeah?
KUT News: They are just in Austin Proper?
Collmann: Umm, hmm.
KUT News: Okay. And was there any thought of, that this is –
Collmann: This is not a safe place to live long term? No, no, not really. We love this neighborhood and I think that we’ve been here, we’ve lived in this neighborhood for 18 years, so we actually never even considered that. I think that we think that there are things that we can do to make our homes safer to work with the HOA and the folks on the preserve that manage the preserve and to make it manageable and make it to where we can make our homes safe enough that we can shelter in place if we needed to eventually. And, like I said, I think that was a very unusual set of circumstances that put so many homes at risk and yet you still want to put, you know, do these things to make sure that it’s not going to happen again.
KUT News: Is there a sense, from the folks in the neighborhood and, I guess the volunteers that you’ve worked with, do you feel like the community has come together as a result of the Labor Day fires?
Collmann: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the new SRNA, the Steiner Ranch Neighborhood Association kind of came about partly because of that. I mean, there were some other concerns about the development, long term development towards the front of the neighborhood, as well, but I think the fires kind of brought to light that we really need to be actively involved in what’s happening out here as far as our safety is concerned, as far as the development is concerned because, of course, that was also impacting the safety and anything new that goes in towards the front of the neighborhood would certainly impact any kind of evacuation that we have, if we have to have another one. So, I think, yeah, it has brought a lot of people together and gotten a lot more people involved.
KUT News: Kind of galvanized some folks that wouldn’t necessarily -
Collmann: Absolutely. Yeah.
KUT News: I would love to, you know, like we had talked about, I would love to go out the next workday and maybe, kind of, follow you guys around a little bit.
Collmann: Oh that would be great.
KUT News: Is there anything that you want to tell me, in terms of your experience or something that I didn’t ask?
Collmann: Well, I mean, I guess I didn’t really go into what we’ve been doing since we organized. The Fire Wise Committee officially organized in January this year; we have had, other than just getting folks trained and getting our committee organized, we’ve been really active. We’ve gotten a lot of procedures and processes in place for homeowners to organize these fuel reduction workdays, which is our biggest effort. But the other big portion of what we want to do is educate homeowners about what they can do on their own properties because certainly the biggest impact that they can have and the most critical for protecting their homes is what they can do to their home, to their yard and then beyond that into the green belts and stuff and that’s where the fuel reduction workdays come into play.
So, we’ve been very active writing articles and a newsletter, getting out in front of homeowners here and just trying to really put the Fire Wise bug in everybody’s ear. So, we’ve organized these fuel reduction workdays, as well, which has also gotten a lot of people involved because people have been wanting to get back behind their fences and cut down all the dead limbs. I mean, from an aesthetics viewpoint, as well as a safety viewpoint. The other thing we’ve done is we are educating homeowners on what the red flag warning days mean.
The HOA has purchased some red flags that we are going to mount on the marquee as the people drive in, we’ve got a big banner that goes up in the front of the neighborhood so when we have these red flag warning days, it’s very visible to the homeowners and the residents here in Steiner Ranch. And then we are also educating and writing articles about what that means, what you need to do to be prepared on those days and the red flag warning days are when conditions are ripe for a wildfire. So, we are letting people know that they need to have, know where their kids are, know where their animals are, have everything kind of packed and ready to go in case there is a need to evacuate the neighborhood and just being prepared.
And right now, of course, there is lots of other things that people need to do as far as getting, registering with the CAP COD program, the reverse 911 program, so one of the issues that came up to light with the Labor Day fire was that the power went out so a lot of people’s phones weren’t working and they didn’t necessarily have their cell phones registered to get the reverse 911 notification to evacuate.
KUT News: So communication -
Collmann: Communication was a large part of what we learned from that event. I think getting people registered with the CAP COD, but they also realized there were some failures with the CAP COD system and they were able to, you know, at least, I don’t think they had done any, you know, large testing of that system since it had been put in place, so they realized some shortcomings and I think are trying to work those out and getting people registered and registering their cell phones. Cell phone use was also, I mean, getting the word out is difficult because when the power goes down, people’s home phones aren’t working and also the cell phone lines, the towers were just jammed so it was hard to get reception and any kind of messages in and out to people.
KUT News: Yeah, I imagine internet is also down.
Collmann: Umm, hmm. Yeah, so were definitely in one of the, the other thing that the Fire Wise group is promoting is, you know, everybody having their little, their Noah radios available so they can listen to the emergency notifications and know what’s going on. Travis County has, they hired on a public information officer because, as far as the, even after the evacuation, there was very limited amount of information, people didn’t know, you know, are the homes still standing and when, you know, when are we going to be let back in and what’s going on. Is the fire contained? I think there was a lot of information going out through Facebook sites. Some of the folks who didn’t evacuate, you know, because it wasn’t mandatory, there were some people who stayed, going through and kind of giving updates and they would post it on their Facebook site and that was how a lot of people were getting information.
KUT News: Yeah, there were two guys in particular who, maybe one was riding around on a bike –
Collmann: Yeah and taking videos. Yeah. So that was, I think and, of course, once it went viral everybody was sharing that information. You know, it’s, there were also some kids apparently giving some reports of homes that were gone but they weren’t really, so there was the misinformation out there, as well. I mean, it was great to have some information, but, you know, people thought their homes were burned to the ground and were just, you know, already thinking that they had lost everything and realized that they hadn’t and vice versa so it was getting correct information out there became a focus too. So, Travis County has their new public information officer and I think that will help if we are ever in that situation again.
KUT News: What about the folks, your old neighbors, are most of them rebuilding and sticking around?
Collmann: The ones that I knew personally, some of them are good friends, yes, they are rebuilding and hope to be in by the end of this year. In fact, some of them, I think, the first homeowners that moved back in were back in at the end of April. Several of them are supposed to be finishing up this fall. But, I think about, I want to say maybe only 30% of the folks are rebuilding and the rest have decided, you know, have purchased other homes and are selling their lots and there are a lot of homes for sale in those sections.
KUT News: Yeah. Is it a developer that’s coming in and purchasing the lots and building new homes?
Collmann: Custom home builders. I think there is one –
KUT News: I just feel like I see the same sign in Medina River.
Collmann: Yeah, I think there is one home builder in particular that has purchased quite a few of those lots and then is working with a particular realtor, yeah, I don’t know how that worked out, but yeah.
KUT News: Was that the part of town that you were in?
Collmann: I was off of McNeely Trail. Yeah, so right around the corner from Varner Court and on Varner Court, I think there were six homes that burned to the ground.
KUT News: Yeah, and, I mean, I went out and spoke with another woman, we kind of went into her home because it’s getting rebuilt and there was kind of a sense, you know, she was taking a very opportunistic attitude. Is that, just folks that you’ve talked to, is that generally, I mean, I guess it’s kind of –
Collmann: It’s kind of, yeah, I mean –
KUT News: Does it vary?
Collmann: It does kind of vary and I think, of course, at this point, after the fact, I mean, that’s where they are in that process of, you know, you lose everything and I’m sure there is a process of dealing with that emotionally. I know a lot of people were just crushed by, and they lost everything. My good friend, she lost her wedding ring and she lost some family heirloom jewelry that were given to her from her mother and she said I walked right past them as I was evacuating, but she didn’t have a lot of time to get out and she goes and I was grabbing things that, you know, I don’t know what I was thinking. You’re just in that panic mode and you’re like, you know, getting the kids and having them rush out the door and then you’re, you know, you walk right passed some things you really wish you would have just reached your hand out and grabbed.
You just don’t think about those things and yeah, I think they went through the process of grieving and being very sad and then trying to figure out, you know, do they want to move back into those homes or do they want to start over and go somewhere else. And now, of course, at least my good friend that I’ve been talking to about this, she is, I think they decided they wanted to stay there. They love that home, they love where they were, they love their neighbors, although some of those will change because some of their neighbors are not coming back. They took the opportunity to build the house, you know, kind of their dream house and, you know, make the changes that they wished they had done originally when they built there so they are taking that opportunity to make things better and, you know, make the best of it.
KUT News: Yeah, I mean, you always hear about the things that you can’t replace and that’s the –
Collmann: Yeah, I’ve been going through the last year actually and going through all my old photos and taking all my negatives and getting them digitally scanned and I’m working on doing the same thing with my video collection of all the kid’s videos and backing all that stuff online and backing it all up to hard drives, external hard drives. It certainly made me go through all of my possessions and things I don’t feel like can be replaced. It’s all of those personal memories that would be devastating to lose and most of that is photos for me.
KUT News: Yeah. I think because there is, yeah, it’s like you grab your iPad or whatever and, just because that’s, yeah, but having all that stuff organized and ready to go and I guess that’s what you were talking about in terms of the red flag –
Collmann: Exactly. Yeah, having all your paperwork; I mean, even these days, you really don’t even need to, I mean, the birth certificates, you can replace those, I mean, you can ask for duplicate copies of those, but it’s just all the stuff that you can’t replace and we were packing up. At least, we had time, but we grabbed all our photo albums and I packed up the computer and the iPods and the phones and all that kind of stuff, but now I’ve got all that stuff backed up and I’ve got an external hard drive where it’s all backed up, but I’m also backing it up online because, if I don’t have time to grab all that stuff, I mean, I had the luxury of the time to grab that stuff. But, trying to make sure I don’t lose it all permanently.
KUT News: Right. It sounds like Travis County and, you know, the fire department, it sounds like they have been very receptive to you guys kind of doing this on your own and willing to help in any way they can.
Collmann: Oh, yeah, I think so. You know, we still have our challenges with the preserve. I mean, everybody has been very, very receptive, even Travis County Natural Resources who manages the preserved land, but we are still are bound by nesting seasons and that’s been a learning opportunity for me too, because even in some of the areas where we don’t back onto preserve and we wanted to have some fuel reduction work done, we were told that we still have to wait in those areas until the end of the nesting season, before we can get back in there and do any work because you can’t, in the newer sections of Steiner that signed the Conservation Easement Agreements that we were still bound by nesting season, even if it was on a developed lot that was just had nothing on it, other than a mailbox kiosk. So, there is some challenges there, but for the most part, the Commissioner’s office, Sarah Eckhart and her office, she is our Commissioner and Lake Travis Fire and Rescue and Travis County Natural Resources has been very, very helpful, letting us know what we are able to do and actually supporting us and trying to promote our group and we haven’t run into any road blocks, really. It’s been more just trying to organize and get these things implemented because we just haven’t had a lot of time to get everything done, but we’re getting there.
KUT News: And then, I know I kind of asked before, but do you feel like the community, I guess, the whole community has kind of gotten closer or is it still –
Collmann: No, I think so. I think the community has definitely come together. I know that immediately after the fires, everybody was, you know, doing all that they could. There were a lot of drives for furniture and just household goods to be able to set the folks who lost their homes up in rental homes and everything else and just get them the basic household supplies that they needed. We are so fortunate, of course, in Steiner Ranch that most of the folks that lost their homes were fully insured and, you know, were able to replace, you know, but it’s just that immediate, you can’t replace everything all at once and the community came together and provided for them. You know, I know that some of the folks in Spicewood and Bastrop were not so fortunate so we’ve done what we can. I know that my daughter and I went over and helped in the collection center in Spicewood and same things were going on in Bastrop. There were furniture drives and whatever we had that was excess beyond what the folks in Steiner Ranch who lost their homes needed were taken to Bastrop and Spicewood and other areas.
KUT News: So, yeah, even cross communities.
Collmann: Yeah, because we realize that we’re very, very fortunate here and we did what we needed to do to take care of our own and then beyond that went and tried to extent that to the other folks who weren’t so fortunate.