The proposed adoption of a fire building code for new home construction set off a firestorm of opinions at a Payson Town Council study session Tuesday, with most councilors adamantly against the idea.
Most council members said they’re all for educating the public about fire dangers and voluntary Firewise programs, but don’t support “big government” dictating new home construction standards that could scare off development.
Fire officials argued for the fire code revisions, but the council mostly raised objections.
Councilor Richard Croy said he was afraid that a tougher building code would scare away developers.
Councilor Michael Hughes said he wouldn’t want to clear the trees on his property, so he didn’t think the town should make other people do it.
Councilor John Wilson said the code would give people like the fire chief and the fire marshal too much power. The town hasn’t had a fire chief for months and eliminated the fire marshal’s position last year to save money.
Payson has mulled over adopting a version of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code (IWUIC) for several years. The code encourages fire-resistant homes. Last April, a town commission rejected the fire department’s recommendation the town adopt the international code on a split 3-3 vote. Then fire chief Marty deMasi argued that the changes in the code would make it much easier to stop a fire from the forest from spreading throughout the town — and also reduce the chances that a house fire would spread into the forest.
Other forested cities in northern Arizona have already adopted codes. One study in the aftermath of the Yarnell Fire showed that almost all the houses cleared to a Firewise standard survived while almost all the houses that didn’t meet the standard burned in the inferno that killed 19 Prescott firefighters.
A before-and-after satellite imagery study of the Yarnell Fire revealed the difference Firewise codes can make. Out of the 569 homes in the community, only 63 were deemed properly defended through brush clearing and other measures, according to the analysis by the Pacific Biodiversity Institute. None burned. But the fire destroyed 115 other structures — and killed the fire crew trying to reach the outskirts of the community to protect it. Some 69 percent of the land that burned was privately owned and none of the homes that did burn adjoined public land.
In the past five years, the number of acres burned annually has risen from an average of 5.2 million acres to 9.3 million acres. In the past 20 years, three quarters of the wildfires have started on state or private land.
Other recent fires in Arizona have demonstrated the critical impact of brush clearing and the creation of buffer zones in the forest. For instance, the fire officials say that the Wallow Fire in the White Mountains nearly consumed Alpine and Springerville, but dropped to the ground where firefighters could stage a last stand as a result of a cleared buffer zone.
The Payson council recently picked up the proposed revision of the wildland fire code as a small part of a massive project to review the town’s entire 1,000-plus-page building code.
Tuesday’s work-study session probed how the council felt about adopting a version of the IWUIC.
Arizona communities that have already adopted the IWUIC with local amendments include Prescott, Flagstaff, Sedona and the Groom Creek Fire District in Yavapai County.
In its overview of the code, Groom Creek officials noted, “One property owner that is careless can endanger the entire community,” they wrote. “As our forest is currently in an extreme long-term drought, a wildland fire can quickly and easily spread, igniting structures within the district. These new requirements can help mitigate that threat.”
The IWUIC alters the building codes for new home construction — it would not require retrofits of existing homes. The code covers the use of ignition resistant building materials and techniques, driveway access for fire apparatus, landscaping plans, water supply requirements and sprinkler systems, among other things.
It also gives the fire chief greater authority in permitting, inspection and enforcement.
The council found fault with the proposed wildland fire code in several areas.
First, because the code would only apply to new construction, some of the councilors felt it would have little impact on reducing the threat of wildfires.
Payson’s general plan would allow a near-tripling of the current population, which means most of the buildings the town will ultimately contain haven’t been built yet.
Several council members struggled to see an immediate value in overhauling the fire codes.
“What real-world benefit would this have?” asked Hughes.
Payson Fire Battalion Chief Dan Bramble said as homes are built into the forest as well as in town, the new structures built under the IWUIC will meet a higher standard, making them less likely to ignite and spread.
This protects the community in two ways. A wildland fire can throw sparks and embers more than a mile ahead of the actual fire front. Such a rain of sparks can land on roofs and treetops, setting many small fires at once. Fires can also move into town from the surrounding forest, moving up against houses and under protruding eaves or dropping sparks on flammable roofs if homeowners haven’t cleared brush and trees.
In addition, a code gives firefighters more time to keep a fire from spreading into the forest. For instance, when a bicycle and car storage lot caught fire in Rye recently, the U.S. Forest Service called on fire departments throughout the region to rush to the scene and keep it from starting a major forest fire.
However, Mayor Kenny Evans said he has never heard of a house fire spreading to the forest. He insisted firefighters have done a good job of keeping home fires from spreading, alluding to several house fires that firefighters contained in Chaparral Pines and The Rim Club.
Councilor Ed Blair asked whether the fire department wants the IWUIC “as is.”
Bramble said the department favored adoption of the code with amendments added after discussions last year.
Blair said he hadn’t seen those amendments. Several other councilors said they hadn’t looked at them either.
Still, Blair said he had a problem giving “an awful lot of power” to a fire code official, like the fire chief or the fire marshal.
Battalion Chief Jim Rasmussen said fire officials must enforce the code as adopted by the council, although they could have latitude in interpreting it.
Councilor Wilson said the code gives fire officials draconian powers to make builders jump through hoops. Wilson said he wouldn’t want someone telling him to cut back the trees on his property because it would “look like hell.”
“I think this code, as it stands, is way too much,” he said. “This is not the vehicle to do it.”
Councilor Croy said he didn’t think the code would make the town any safer. It would look sparser if the big trees were cut down and ruin the feel of the town.
In fact, Croy said he feared the code could scare off builders.
Evans said he didn’t like a provision of the code that would require people during a severe fire hazard to water their native trees. “You can tell me to water my pinon?” Evans said.
However, when trees dry out fire behavior changes radically. Firefighters on the Wallow and Yarnell fires described the sight of kindling-dry trees virtually exploding in flames when the heat from the fire front reached them.
Hughes said he could not stand behind something this “draconian.” Although the code would not affect his property, he would not want to be told how to build his home. And because he wouldn’t be willing to live by the code, he couldn’t tell other people to do so.
“(This code) is over the top in terms of government influence,” he said.
However, the council agreed the town must do something about the large number of overgrown, empty lots.
Rasmussen said the current code provides no regulations to make people clean up their yards. Although he said he doesn’t like big government either, Rasmussen suggested the town adopt the Firewise code.
“We need some kind of guideline,” he said.
By contrast, the current town landscaping rules all but require the thick covering of trees throughout town. In fact, the current code could require homeowners to plant added native vegetation if they remove a tree.
Before his retirement deMasi researched the WUI code. He surveyed fire code officials and analyzed WUI codes in other Arizona communities.
He said while Prescott, Flagstaff, Sedona and Groom Creek Fire District have all adopted versions of the code, “the fact that not very many jurisdictions have adopted the IWUIC at this time, although it has been published since at least 1999, does not bode well for the Payson effort.” deMasi added that the PFD has vague and incomplete regulations to guide development and manage vegetative and structural fuels.
“This situation creates an unacceptable risk to the community and keeps the fire department in a reactive frame of activity,” he wrote. “The IWUIC is essentially a partnership between the fire services, developers and residents of the intermix area and lends itself as a tool for planning proactively.”
The council did agree on Tuesday of the critical need to educate people about living in a wildland urban interface.
Councilor Fred Carpenter said the town should move forward with a fire program, but something more reasonable than the “heavy handed” IWUIC.
Bramble said while the fire department supports Firewise education, it doesn’t have grant funding anymore to push it.
Evans suggested the town put together a task force of experts including fire officials and members of Firewise communities.
Evans said he would also like to take a closer look at the Prescott code and investigate whether voluntary compliance has worked elsewhere. He suggested the town support voluntarily WUI guidelines and meet with homeowners associations.