Neighborhood Chops Away At Fire Risk

Payson Pines becomes the latest Rim community to qualify as ‘firewise’ subdivision

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Kam Hunter, acting Arizona state forester, congratulates the Payson Pines Homeowners Association on its firewise award. Andy Towle/Roundup

Payson Pines this week became the latest Rim Country community to clean up to avoid burning down.

The residents of the subdivision attended public meetings, cut brush and small trees on their property, contributed money for community cleanup and took other steps to reduce the threat of a forest fire rampaging through the community.

This weekend, the state department of forestry welcomed the subdivision to the growing list of communities nationally that have banded together to reduce wildfire risk.

“It’s neat to see communities get involved,” said Forester LeeAnn Beery, with the Arizona State Forestry Division, “because the whole community is working together to protect themselves — they take themselves out of that role of being a victim of wildland fires. Be proactive.”

Nationally, 411 communities have gone through the training and public education process to qualify as a “firewise” community in the national program run by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

Other Rim communities that have already qualified for the designation include Kohl’s Ranch, Portal IV in Pine, Elk Ridge, East Verde Park, Rim Golf Club and Chaparral Pines. Two other Rim communities, Bonita Creek and Beaver Valley Estates, will get their award soon, said Beery.

The clearing of brush and adherence to the required fire risk reduction plan are voluntary under the program. The program focuses on clearing a defensible space around buildings rather than structural changes.

Some forested communities have adopted building codes that forbid roofs made of flammable materials like shingles, overhanging eaves that catch fire easily if fire licks up against the side of the building, fire-resistant building materials and other changes that prevent a stray spark from a distant fire from setting a house ablaze. Few Rim communities have such model building code ordinances.

The “firewise” designation is mostly an effort to educate the public and get homeowners to begin taking steps to reduce fire danger.

Rim communities are considered among the most fire-threatened in the country, especially in thickly forested areas like Pine, Strawberry and Kohl’s Ranch.

A century of fire suppression has created an unhealthy forest with 1,000 small, dried out, struggling trees per acre. That crowded forest has generated some mammoth wildfires in recent years, which have, on occasion, forced the evacuation of Rim communities.

The Forest Service has thinned thousands of acres on the outskirts of key Rim communities in the past three years, trying to prevent an out-of-control fire from skipping from tree to tree right into town, where many homeowners have thickly forested lots.

Beery said that the division of forestry recommends that homeowners keep trees spaced so that there’s at least 10 to 15 feet clear between the outer branches of any two trees — with a greater separation recommended on slopes.

“Firewise is not an enforcement program, it’s an education program,” said Beery. “Property owners may have that special tree they like to look at out their window and no matter what, they’re not going to cut it down. We understand that and try to work with the property owner to mitigate it as much as we can.”

Beery encouraged any neighborhood or subdivision groups to contact the state division of forestry or the local fire department to become a firewise community.

She said most fire departments will send you an expert to help homeowners decide how much to thin trees and brush on their property.

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