Payson and Gila County have both balked at adopting firewise building standards, despite the rising danger of catastrophic wildfires like the one that devoured much of Yarnell and killed 19 firefighters trying to protect the community.
The Payson Fire Department pushed for the adoption of a firewise building code that would require flame- and ember-resistant roofing and building materials, eliminate flammable overhangs and elevated porches in new construction, while also requiring adequate clearing of brush and trees around structures.
One study in Yarnell found that while flames consumed 47 percent of the structures, they claimed only 10 percent of the homes with at least some clearing of brush and none of the homes that met a firewise standard.
The proposed overhaul of the building code in Payson and Gila County can sharply reduce the risk from wildfires that can cast a rain of burning embers out a mile ahead of the fire line. Such embers can easily start fires on wood or asphalt shingle roofs, which dominate roof types in Payson. Embers can also settle in the thick brush and trees around forested communities like Payson. Moreover, such fires can climb to the top of closely spaced trees and advance faster than a man can run. The interlocking canopies of the trees that cover almost all of Payson would carry such a crown fire straight through town in the event of a Yarnell-style blaze.
However, the Payson Fire Department’s plea for an overhaul of the building code died on a split vote before the building advisory board some weeks ago. As a result of the tie vote with one member absent, the proposal won’t go to the council at all. Although several council members have privately expressed support for an overhaul of the building code to reduce fire danger, no discussion of a new code has made it onto the council agenda.
Fire officials say that Payson has a perfect chance to overhaul the building code now, with almost nothing under construction while the town waits for growth to resume. Such an overhaul would not affect existing structures, unless the town included a tougher requirement for homeowners to clear brush and trees. However, with a population of 15,000 now and a general plan build-out projection of 40,000 — most of the town’s housing stock isn’t yet built.
Some council members have said they’re leery of increasing the cost of new construction by requiring things like fire-resistant roofs. They worry builders will avoid Payson if requirements drive up costs.
However, while things like requiring sprinkler systems would add substantially to the cost of a house, many of the fire-resistant building code changes wouldn’t cost much. Moreover when it comes to increasing construction costs, between Payson and the Northern Gila County Sanitary District, homebuilders must pay some $15,000 per unit in impact fees, among the highest in the state.
But it’s not just Payson.
Gila County has also long ignored the issue, despite numerous studies showing such a building code can sharply reduce damages from a major wildfire. The county has for years approved small subdivisions in the middle of the thick forest. Some of those unincorporated subdivisions like Deer Creek have no fire protection at all. Others have struggling fire departments that rely heavily on volunteers and equipment scavenged from other departments.
After years of discussion, a study group involving most of the fire departments in the area failed to agree on a plan to create a single, area fire district.
The county has created some of the most fire-menaced communities in the country through past subdivision approvals. Many don’t even have a second road in and out so that residents could escape if an oncoming wildfire blocked the single escape route. Gila County has pleaded with the Tonto National Forest to approve the creation of such escape routes for years, but forest officials have said they want to wait until they complete work on a travel management plan to restrict off-road travel for the whole forest before addressing the need for emergency escape routes for forest-bound communities.
Yarnell provided a tragic illustration of the consequences of ignoring fire danger in developing the building codes in fire-prone areas. The community was nestled in chaparral composed of manzanita, oak and scrub oak. Like ponderosa pine forests, that’s a fire-adapted ecosystem that relies on frequent, low-intensity ground fires to maintain its health. Frequent fires clear out the brush and return nutrients to the soil, benefitting the environment.
However, like Payson and many Rim Country communities, the area hadn’t had a fire in more than 50 years. As a result, when the fire finally came, it burned with a dangerously unpredictable fury.
The unincorporated community near Prescott had 500 homes, but was not an official “firewise” community. Residents in the roughly 70,000 firewise communities — including Rim Country subdivisions like Beaver Valley — work to convince neighbors to keep brush and trees cleared — but don’t necessarily have the kinds of building code requirements that the Payson Building Advisory Board rejected.
However, some of the Yarnell homeowners had cleared the brush and trees from around their houses and taken other steps to reduce the danger from a wildfire. The Pacific Biodiversity Institute of Washington State did an analysis of the Yarnell Fire using Google Earth images of homes before and after the fire. The Institute study determined that only 11 percent (53) of the 503 structures met basic defensible space standards — and only 14 homes met firewise standards. Of the 503 structures, a catastrophic 47 percent burned. However, only 10 percent of the houses that met the defensible space standard burned. Meanwhile, not one of the 14 homes that met the full firewise standard fell to the flames.
Moreover, a report on the deaths of the 19 members of a Prescott Hotshot crew concluded that they were trapped in a brush-filled canyon trying to make their way to the safety of a ranch whose owners had cleared away enough brush to be designated as a safe-zone. Initial reports suggested the firefighters were trying to save the ranch. In fact, investigators concluded the crew was trying to reach the safety of the cleared area around the ranch in hopes of then leapfrogging to Yarnell before the fire reached that poorly prepared community. In the end, they died trying to protect a community that had for years ignored the steps necessary to reduce fire danger.
Other studies in California and elsewhere have found that simple changes in the building code can dramatically increase the odds a house will survive a major fire. Perhaps the most important protection lies in having roofs that won’t catch fire from falling embers — made of tiles, metal or other materials. Another simple fix lies in putting wire or other fire-resistant mesh over ventilation openings to the attic. Embers from even distant fires can drift into ventilation openings and alight in the attic, where they can catch the whole house on fire. Other fixes include things like not having projecting eaves made out of wood. If flames burn through grass or brush up against a house, the heat can easily rise up the side of the house and set such flammable eaves ablaze. Elevated wooden porches connected to a house also pose a risk, since flames and embers can get underneath and set the porch on fire, taking the house along with it.