Some wag once said: First rule of getting out of a hole is to stop digging. So we were delighted when Payson’s FireSmart Committee recommended prompt action to convince people to trim brush and trees on their lots.
Moreover, the committee recommended the town quickly adopt the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) building code restrictions on fire-prone brush and weeds.
No doubt about it: The thickets of trees and brush on far too many lots in Payson pose a direct danger to everyone who lives here. Fires can easily start in such thickets and spread through overgrown neighborhoods and out into the forest.
By the same token, even a distant wildfire can cast embers out a mile beyond the fire line, showering sparks on all those thickets at once.
Moreover, Suzy Tubbs who did so much to convince the residents of the country club communities to adopt a Firewise approach did not flinch from challenging Councilor Fred Carpenter to offer up his own house for a before-and-after view of what it takes to protect our homes from wildfires.
Tubbs rightly observed that many oppose thinning projects out of the mistaken belief the trim job will create a bare-ground moonscape, claiming even prized, large trees. In truth, a Firewise approach eliminates brush, small trees and grass around the perimeter of the house — and trimming the branches of the big trees that overhang the roof.
The handful of houses in Yarnell cleared to a Firewise standard survived that terrible, tragic inferno — while their brushy neighbors’ houses burned.
Moreover, the town continues to ponder its health and safety codes, seeking language that will allow the town to act when the negligence of a property owner endangers the safety of his neighbors. Currently, the town can’t easily force a homeowner to clear a weed-choked fire hazard. We need stronger codes.
Clearly, clearing the thickets remains the most urgent, most vital response we can make inside these town limits to the terrible threat of wildfire. Rim Country has once more lapsed into “extreme” fire danger as the worst drought in centuries grinds on. We’ve had about two inches of rain since January. Normally, we would have received about eight inches by now.
But we’re puzzled by the committee’s curious suggestion that the council should spend another 18 months pondering its building code when it comes to the other elements of the WUI code the Payson Fire Department urged the town to adopt a year ago. The fire department proposed amendments to the international code to adapt the requirements to local conditions. But the Building Advisory Board deadlocked on the recommendations and the town council has proved alarmingly unwilling to treat the issue as the town-threatening crisis it presents.
Council members have expressed concerns about scaring off new development, giving too much power to fire department inspectors, raising the cost of construction and adding complex, expensive, time-consuming details to the building code. In the meanwhile, the town eliminated the fire marshal’s position to save money.
While we sympathize with the yearning for a return to growth and development, those equivocations seem like foolish quibbles given the urgency of the problem we face.
Flagstaff and Prescott and other far-sighted towns have already adopted codes to require things like fire-resistant roofs and building materials, spark-blocking barriers on attic ventilation and the underside of open porches. We don’t need 18 months to sort through the good ideas in those codes and adopt them. We should have done it a year ago. Any further delay is reckless and irresponsible.
Granted, changing the building code won’t fix the immediate problem. The town can’t reasonably expect current residents to bear the cost of new roofs. The standards will mostly affect new construction, which means they won’t provide really good protection for the community for many years.
But the number of building permits issued has risen 40 percent since last year. We can expect finalization of the plan to bring a university to Payson will result in a sharp rise in construction this year and next.
We need the new WUI building code in place before the town’s planning staff is overwhelmed with new developments.
So we’re delighted the town council seems willing to at least stop digging.
But now someone needs to throw them a rope so they can climb out of the hole.
Check with the fire department: They’ve got rope.