Building Code Overhaul May Blunt Fire Menace

Payson lags behind in wildfire protection, but $300,000 federal grant and code changes may avert ‘disaster’

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A $300,000 federal grant and an overhaul of the building codes may soon help ease the dire threat of Payson’s greatest potential disaster — a wildfire sweeping in out of a thickset, fire-prone forest.

“In terms of a disaster risk, it’s the No. 1 thing the town faces,” said Payson Fire Chief Marti deMasi.

“We’re fortunate: we don’t get earthquakes, we don’t get hurricanes — but every year we’re endangered by wildland fires.”

Now, the town is taking two steps to ease that risk.

First, Payson landed a $300,000 federal grant to help homeowners meet “firewise” standards by clearing dangerous clumps of brush and trees and making home improvements to make homes more survivable.

Today’s Roundup includes a special supplement describing some of the steps homeowners can take to protect their homes from both an onrushing fire and from sparks and embers that can land on roofs, thickets and wood piles from forest fires burning several miles away.

The Payson Fire Department together with the Hellsgate Fire Department developed the Firewise supplement to help homeowners protect their property from the No. 1 threat to Rim Country communities.

In addition, the Payson Fire Department has asked the town’s Building Advisory Board to take the first steps toward adopting a Wildlands Urban Interface (WUI) building code that can dramatically reduce the odds a house will catch fire. Flagstaff, Sedona, Prescott and other Arizona communities have already adopted the WUI building code, leaving fire-menaced Payson lagging behind.

Nationally, fire experts have designated some 1.2 billion acres of wildland/urban interface, where fire-prone forest or chaparral grow next to subdivisions. Some 100,000 wildfires annually consume about 6 million acres — a dramatic rise in recent years.

During the 1960s, wildland fires destroyed an average of 200 structures annually nationwide. In the past decade, that average has risen to 3,000 structures annually, according to a fact sheet published by the International Code Council.

Government agencies spend $4 billion annually fighting wildfires to protect some 65,000 fire-menaced communities. Insurance losses top $1 billion annually.

Tragically, an average of 20 wildland firefighters lose their lives each year, often in a desperate effort to protect poorly constructed homes that become firetraps when wildfires threaten.

The WUI code reduces fire danger by requiring fire-resistant materials for roofs and siding, while also banning things like over-hanging eaves and decks open to flames from below. Coupled with keeping brush and trees a safe distance away from houses, such a code can allow a fire to sweep past a house without setting it on fire.

The fire department is pushing for a tough firewise code, and hearings will focus on how stringent to make the provisions. One key issue will likely focus on whether provisions should apply to existing homes, instead of just new construction.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the fire department wants the council to require homeowners to clear brush to meet firewise standards. He said the council will likely strike some compromises to avoid provoking fierce opposition from homeowners who might otherwise have to clear half the trees and brush on their property.

The fire department wants to apply as many provisions as possible to existing homes, noting that a fire-prone home poses a threat to all the neighboring structures and to firefighters.

“When smoke is not in the air, folks don’t think about it much,” said deMasi, of the ebb and flow of public support for a tough fire code.

“But we’ve just been fortunate with the fires we’ve had during fire season the last couple of years — we’ve just lucked out.”

He said the recent Water Wheel Fire that forced the evacuation of Whispering Pines and Beaver Valley last summer delivered a timely warning. The fire consumed a hillside choked with brush and trees that hadn’t burned in nearly a century, sending 50-foot flames ravening into the air. A shift in winds turned the raging fire back a short distance from Beaver Creek, containing the fire by forcing it to turn back on an already-burned slope.

“Put that fire at a slightly different time and it could have been a whole different scenario,” said deMasi.

The $300,000 federal grant to help homeowners meet firewise standards in clearing brush and trees is about three times as much money as the town has received previously.

deMasi said the U.S. Forest Service has cleared thousands of acres on the outskirts of Payson, Pine, Strawberry and other Rim communities in recent years. In the past century, tree densities in Rim Country forests have increased more than tenfold, resulting in a tinderbox forest.

Thinning on the outskirts of forest communities has cost the Forest Service tens of millions of dollars in recent years and has reduced the danger that a wildfire will rush straight into town. Burning trees and brush can rain embers down on rooftops from miles away, well behind the range the Forest Service can ever clear a buffer.

deMasi estimated that only about a quarter of the homeowners in Payson have thinned trees on their lots, and only about 10 percent meet overall “firewise” standards. Most homes have way too much vegetation, especially close to houses with open porches and overhanging eaves.

Nationally, only about 1 percent of the 65,000 threatened communities have been officially designated as firewise.

In Rim Country, that includes Beaver Valley, Bonita Creek, Chaparral Pines, Elk Ridge, East Verde Estates, Flowing Springs, Kohl’s Ranch, Payson Pines, the Rim Club and Portal 4.

Incorporated towns like Payson and Star Valley can’t qualify for the neighborhood-oriented designation, but can work toward those standards, noted deMasi.

Payson has lagged far behind the forefront on fire-smart policies and codes, but has plenty of company. Nationally, fewer than 3 percent of the estimated 46 million homes in at-risk communities have been inspected for ways to reduce fire risk. And only 7 percent of wildland/urban interface have been thinned since 1999. Only 7 percent of the threatened communities have adopted a fire protection plan to cope with the problem, according to International Code Council estimates. Only 10 percent of those communities have adopted some version of the WUI building codes.

deMasi said that firefighters throughout the region have undertaken the long, slow process of alerting homeowners to the grave fire danger they face.

“It’s an education process,” said deMasi. “Once folks recognize the risk and start to learn about the ecology of the area, then most of the resistance goes away.”

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