Lew Levenson's fight appears to be an uphill battle.
He's been trying to get the Payson Town Council to consider extending the state of emergency declared in January because of the ongoing drought. The resolution, if approved by the council, would "establish appropriate defensive space to minimize damage to the town of Payson as a consequence of the extraordinarily high risk of wildfire in the next several years."
But first Levenson, executive director of the Arizona Partnership for Forest Health, has to get the item on the agenda, a move he says some councilors oppose.
"There were three councilors opposed to putting it on the agenda," Levenson said. "That's not a majority, but it's enough in a political sense to say, ‘Hey, that's probably a problem when people don't even want to see it on the agenda.'"
On Monday, Levenson met with Town Manager Fred Carpenter and Fire Chief Marty de Masi. Carpenter said he planned to explain the political realities of introducing the resolution in the immediate future.
"There's not been any interest on the part of the council for putting it on the agenda at this time," Carpenter said. "If you're going to commit funds, and it does suggest that we commit funds, this is probably not the right time of year to talk about it because the budget cycle really doesn't start until next month. It's really a question of budget."
Dick Wolfe, one of the councilors who opposes putting the resolution on the council agenda at this time, agrees.
"This calls for considerable resources to be directed toward that and I don't think the way to do that is through a resolution commanding us to do it," Wolfe said. "It needs to be done through the strategic planning process which is then tied into our budget."
The resolution, which is already drawn up and ready to be taken up by the council, simply extends "the state of emergency declared ... on Jan. 16 due to the mortality of insect- and disease- infested, drought impacted, and fire damaged trees."
But it also specifically directs the town manager to:
- Ensure that competent resources are available to the Payson fire chief to establish the criteria for effective defensive space in the town of Payson by February 29, 2004.
- Ensure all town departments review their priorities by March 31, 2004 to reallocate resources to bring facilities and property under their control to meet wildfire defensive space criteria by March 31, 2005.
- Ensure there is a long-range plan in place by April 30, 2004 for 85 percent of the properties in each above category to meet the criteria for effective wildfire defensive space by Dec. 31, 2006;
- Request the immediate and continued cooperation of abutting and nearby fire districts that may be seen as the town of Payson's wildfire defensive space and assure continued close liaison with the Tonto National Forest;
- Request the immediate and continued cooperation of manufacturing, production and service industries as well as commercial, retail, and other distribution facilities located in or serving Payson residents to evaluate the effectiveness of their normal operations and activities to meet the criteria for effective wildfire defensive space;
- Request the immediate and continued cooperation of all property owners in the town of Payson to meet the criteria for effective wildfire defensive space for their property;
- Ensure close cooperation with the Arizona Partnership for Forest Health to coordinate the several stakeholder groups to meet and maintain the criteria for effective wildfire defensive space through continuing information and awareness;
- Report progress and status for the milestones and goals in the resolution at the first regular council meeting in March of 2004 with monthly updates for the duration of the emergency.
Levenson doesn't understand why anybody would oppose the resolution. In a memo supporting it, he wrote:
"Payson is not unique. Nearly all communities in Northern Arizona must address the defined emergency. For example, Show Low took the lessons of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire to heart and passed a local ordinance requiring citizens to adhere to conditions that would provide defensive space. Prescott has done the same. So has Flagstaff. The five eastern counties of Arizona have come together to address related issues."
Levenson believes the town council needs to provide leadership on the issue of defensive space.
"When results of megafires begin to be measured in thousands of homes lost, it is clear that a more consistent approach is needed to assure the general requirements to provide timely and adequate public safety are met," he said. "Fire is not a respecter of property lines or jurisdictional boundaries. This issue requires cooperation. Such cooperation is more likely to be forthcoming when there is a clear declaration by the elected leadership ...."
Besides the issue of timing, Carpenter pointed out another problem that needs to be addressed before the resolution can be put on a council agenda.
"This resolution was crafted by an outside entity," he said. "If the town adopts a resolution it becomes a town resolution and, of course, the town would want to put it in its own format."
If the town doesn't address the issue soon, Levenson is prepared to go in a different direction.
"I told (Carpenter), ‘At some point it just may be that if I can't work with you I'm going to have to get other people involved,'" Levenson said. "He understands that."
The Arizona Partnership for Forest Health is a corporation that was formed April 1 to streamline the grant process for the Regional Payson Area Project, the wildland-urban interface fire mitigation plan that incorporates vegetation management, density reduction, prescribed burning, selective revegetation and fuel hazard mapping.