The Payson Town Council took a definitive step last week to address the threat of wildfires in town, approving plans to hold a community education day and adopt at least part of a wildland fire code.
The council declared June wildfire awareness and prevention month and agreed fires pose a growing threat to Rim Country.
The council went ahead with plans to adopt vegetation standards for new home construction in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) code. However, the council also decided it needs another 18 months to consider adopting the rest of the WUI code the fire department urged them to embrace last year. Instead, the council will ponder toughening standards for things like roofs and flammable building materials for another 18 months.
The council adopted almost every recommendation of the Payson FireSmart Committee, a group formed in part by Councilor Fred Carpenter 2.5 months ago to improve the wildfire readiness of the community.
Headed up by Suzy Tubbs, the Rim Golf Club Association manager, the committee includes several community members including Marguerite Kelly, a nationally certified Firewise consultant. Tubbs has helped oversee nearly all of the properties in the gated community become Firewise.
The group agreed the community needs to do more to protect itself from wildfires, but realizes many people will resist new rules.
Some of that resistance came from the council itself during a March special meeting on the WUI code.
The code deals with new home construction, dictating the materials builders must use and building and vegetation practices to prevent the spread of a wildfire. Studies have shown that the provisions of the code can dramatically reduce the chance a home will catch fire as a result of embers drifting a mile or more in front of a wildfire.
Some criticized the plan because it only deals with new construction and it would do nothing for overgrown properties.
Several councilors said they worried the code also gave far too much authority to the fire chief and would require the removal of large trees. They called it draconian. Generally, the code focuses on small trees and brush and requires homeowners to trim branches from large trees that overhang the roof.
The council couldn’t agree on the need for the changes, so Mayor Kenny Evans asked town staff to put together a task force to come back with recommendations. On Thursday, Tubbs offered several.
She said ignorance remains at the root of much of the resistance to a fire prevention program.
Residents commonly believe their yards will look like moonscapes once Firewise, their favorite trees “slaughtered.” Even some committee members believed that she said.
“That is why education and clarification is a must.”
People cannot support something they don’t understand. Tubbs said the town should set a tangible example by “Firewiseing” several town properties, for example, near Rumsey Park.
She also asked Carpenter if he would bring his property up to Firewise standards and have the process documented so residents could see the before and after. Carpenter agreed to an assessment.
Fear also plays a role in community resistance, she said, including fear the government will dictate how their property looks. For some, this infringes on freedoms in a time when they feel the government already has too much control, Tubbs said.
Tubbs said if Payson can take responsibility as a community, the government won’t have to step in.
Already, insurance companies are making changes.
Eric Santana, with State Farm Insurance, told the committee State Farm would only insure those that live in a wildland area who have a defensible space around their home.
Other insurance companies are raising rates or simply pulling out.
Beeline Insurance’s Todd Braeger reportedly told the committee several companies have pulled their contracts in the area. “Let’s get ahead of the game and be smart and responsible.”
The final set back is cost.
Many homeowners say they can’t afford to clear their property. But Tubbs said several church groups have already volunteered labor and state and federal grants can also provide support.
As a Firewise consultant, Kelly said the biggest misconception she hears from residents about a Firewise approach required removal of all the trees and shrubs on their properties.
“Being fire smart is not clear-cutting,” she said.
As a visitor and now resident of Payson for more than 50 years, Kelly said she no longer sees a beautiful forest, but tree thickets and fire hazards.
Residents have to deal with this hazard, she said.
Tubbs recommended the town schedule a “FireSmart” education day, launch an aggressive education program and create an escape/emergency plan.
She also recommended the town adopt the 2012 WUI code as amended by the Building Advisory Board. Instead of adopting the whole code, she suggested the council only adopt the parts that deal with vegetation around new home construction. The town can then deal with the more controversial building materials issues in the next 18 months.
The council agreed.
“Fire danger is inevitable, so it goes without saying that this is not a suggestion but a necessity,” she said. Residents can’t assume that firefighters can stop all fires from getting close to town, so property owners must prepare their properties to give firefighters the best chance.
Evans said Payson must undergo a cultural shift to prepare for wildfires, not only by clearing properties, but by repeatedly thinning the regrowth.