Residents Fight Fire Code With Ire

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Residents of Gila County's District 1 will have the chance to evaluate a proposed urban-wildland fire code that Young residents have already rejected.

Young-area residents armed with tape recorders and video cameras staged a protest May 19 during a Gila County Urban-Interface Commission meeting. They were upset about a committee's first attempt at producing a comprehensive fire code aimed at communities bordering the forest.

The committee is a sub-group of the commission appointed by District 1 County Supervisor Ron Christensen to find ways to reduce fire danger where housing meets public wildlands.

"We live in an area of high (fire) potential. We need to protect ourselves against a catastrophic fire," Christensen said.

The 47-page fire code document created by the commission's Code Committee was taken from a national code developed in 1997 by the International Fire Code Institute.

The IFIC made this code available to the entire country for any community interested in adopting it as a whole, in parts or as a reference to create a code specific to the needs of each community, said John Varljen, the commission coordinator and Pine-Strawberry fire marshal.

The need for this code stems from a gap between the county's building code and fire codes currently in place, Varljen said. The proposed code contains specific rules about landscaping, housing construction and open flames on private property bordering the national forest.

For example, the code would require a 30-foot buffer of generally open space around homes to eliminate a direct path for fire to enter the structure. Other rules address construction and roofing material requirements and the storage of firewood, gas and other combustible materials.

The code's first draft met with strong objections from residents of the Young area. More than a dozen people lined the wall of the tiny county conference room in Payson during a meeting of the Interface Commission.

Young residents were the county's first to consider the new regulations after the proposed rules were sent to them in preparation for the first public hearing on the code. That public hearing, which was scheduled to be held in Young, was cancelled by the commission after members received numerous complaints from Young residents about the proposed code.

Residents from Young turned up at the regular commission meeting May 19 in Payson.

They voiced concern over the administration of the code, the cost of enforcing it and the dislike they have for another government agency telling them what to do with their property. "Un-involve us," said Gayle Allain of Young at the meeting.

"It could be used as a weapon more than a tool," said resident Tom Osborne on Tuesday. "I really did feel like they were trying to rush it through." He said that a "code official" with a vendetta could cause more problems for a property owner than the hazards the code tries to prevent.

"The fact that you can be fined for not using common sense does not mean that you will use common sense," Osborne said.

In this first draft, the authority given to an unspecified "code official" to enforce regulations is similar to that of building codes and fire codes currently in place in the county, Varljen said. "If you look at both codes you will find the same verbiage when it comes to the authority," he said.

There was a sense of urgency to get the code out and get it adopted by Gila County, said John Ross, committee chair and Payson's fire chief. That urgency was fueled by the prediction that the coming summer could be a severe fire season, he said Tuesday.

"Fire danger is a good motivation, but codes just don't move that fast," said county official Joe Mendoza at the May 19 meeting. Mendoza is director of development and chief building official for Gila County and a code committee member.

"There is a long way to go before this does any damage or any good. Personally I see a lot of things that need fixing. My suggestion is that we let the people beat it up and make it what they want," Mendoza said.

For now, the people of Young have gotten what they want. Instead of targeting all of Gila County, Christensen and his fellow supervisors agreed to let the code process move forward, but only in District 1. Young is in District 2, represented by County Supervisor Cruz Salas.

"We listened (to the complaints) and said we will go in a different area and a different direction. We will put a pilot program in District 1 and see if anybody likes it," Christensen said.

In the next month and a half, hearings will be set up in the Christopher-Kohls, Pine-Strawberry and Payson areas for public review and comment on the proposed Urban-Wildland Interface Code for District 1.

The sense of urgency, tempered by the reaction of Young residents, is motivating Christensen and the commission to move forward with the process. The commission will also tackle the issue of public education more aggressively, Varljen said.

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