Payson Council Balks At Firewise Codes

A firefighter works the line of a backfire during the effort to stop the Wallow Fire from destroying Alpine and Springerville. Only a cleared buffer zone saved the communities, say firefighters. The Payson Fire Department officials this week urged the town council to adopt a wildland fire code, but council members feared it would deter builders.

A firefighter works the line of a backfire during the effort to stop the Wallow Fire from destroying Alpine and Springerville. Only a cleared buffer zone saved the communities, say firefighters. The Payson Fire Department officials this week urged the town council to adopt a wildland fire code, but council members feared it would deter builders.


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.


Michael Hughes, Payson vice mayor

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.


Meria Heller 2 years, 10 months ago

what's more important - profit or people's lives? With the drought we've had and will continue to have we NEED to insist on these codes being passed.


Anita Christy 2 years, 10 months ago

Thank you to this Council for rejecting these codes! What many people don't realize is that the International Code Council stays in business by dreaming up more and more of these regulations. Every regulation is a law that must be followed and enforced, and there are penalties for noncompliance, including criminal penalties. People move to rural communities precisely because they want to get away from oppressive government regulations. We need to encourage personal responsibility, not mandate it.


Barbara Rasmussen 2 years, 10 months ago

The reason that codes are in place is because of significant property loss and/or deaths have occurred and not just the public but also of the brave men and women who put their lives on the line just doing their job. Anita Christy if it was your husband, son or son in law or another family member that put his life on the line just doing the job would you have this same opinion? This town council and mayor have repeatedly changed and done away with Fire Codes because builders/developers have asked them to so that they could build here in Payson. It is a disturbing trend as far as I am concerned.


Ronald Hamric 2 years, 10 months ago

Ms. Rasmussen,

You took the words right out of my mouth. Even though some may not be aware, almost every code I used to enforce came from tragic experience. We too often believe there are highly paid bureaucrats simply sitting around dreaming these things up. Unfortunately, as is the habit of most bureaucrats, they only act after the fact. I'm certain Ms. Christy and many others are not aware of just how much of the burdensome fire, building, and electrical codes are derived from past tragic experience. A simple thing such as the direction that an exit door swings came from the tragedy at the Coconut Grove fire where many perished because the only exit door opened inward, which was impossible to do when the panicked crowd was all jammed up against it. The same applies for visible exit signs, emergency lighting etc. I know folks are so used to these things in their environment that they often take them for granted or hardly ever notice them, but they will be the ones who benefit if the worst case scenario befalls them. The old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" comes to mind. But I do understand and appreciate what Ms. Christy is saying about just how much our daily lives are directed, regulated, and forced. Now we are even being "forced" to buy health insurance. Go figure. When is enough going to be enough? I long for that personal responsibility she referred to. Were it the norm, we wouldn't likely even likely be having this discussion.


Anita Christy 2 years, 10 months ago

Ms Rasmussen and Mr Hamric, I appreciate what you are saying, but I'm not speaking from ignorance. I used to be a volunteer wildland fire fighter, emt, high angle rope rescue technician, and ground pounder (search and rescue). My husband was an engine boss/high angle rope rescue instructor, etc. In fact, he still volunteers. For over a year, as a citizen journalist (also unpaid), I've been reporting on the proliferation of codes that the International Code Council has been shoving down the throats of the citizenry by convincing municipalities to pass codes (regulations aka laws). The code books can be measured in feet, not inches. The fires have become monstrous in Arizona and a threat to homeowners, not for lack of codes, but for many other reasons: No more logging and poor management decisions on some of those fires are among those. There was a time when the forests were healthy. Now they are dog hair thickets. That's where your threat lies. But the new homeowner is supposed to take responsibility to keep his teensy bit of land cleared? The builder is supposed to follow yet one more new law? Just go out sometime and start cutting away trees and brush in the Tonto NATIONAL Forest. You better get a permit. Of course, the taxpayers can pay the USFS to do the cutting. Do they hire locals? No. They import workers. Government creates a problem, and what's the solution? Government.

The federal government owns 96% of Gila County. So, clearing a little bit out of 4% of private land will make all the difference in the next horrendous forest fire. I'm glad whenever I see a cow eating away at some of that forest that sits 15 feet from my property.


Ronald Hamric 2 years, 10 months ago

Ms. Christy,

I appreciate your background as I spent 29 years in the Fire Service myself. EMT, USAR , Hazmat, wild land/forest fire experience and all that. None of that is germane to the topic we are discussing. As I said in another post on this topic, I am as much opposed to big government at the Federal level, state level, and local level as much as anyone. And the "codes" being discussed are symptomatic of that intrusive government. But, I have only heard you restate things that have been beat to death for years about forest mismanagement, under story overgrowth, no more timber industry, etc. And all that has a causative effect on the primary problem. But what we are discussing is what steps the Payson City Council can take, in the near term , to help mitigate the threat of a catastrophic fire that will impact on their city due to the very things you mentioned. Like it or not, for the safety of all of us, we have laws and rules that regulate our activities and conduct so we do not cause harm to the greater society. I usually refer to these as the "Laws of Social Order". Are you proposing some "magic bullet" in the absence of laws or regulations that will impact directly on people's conduct and personal responsibility towards themselves and others? If so, I feel certain, in light of their response to the recommendations of the "fire professionals". the Payson City Council would be more than happy to accept any alternative other than the IWUIC.

By the way, when I began my career the UFC (Uniform Fire Code) was a mere pamphlet. I am cognizant of how much it and the other codes have grown in volume over the years. We used to retain copies of each preceding code simply so we would appreciate and reflect on "the good old days". I also remember when I used to submit my required annual Federal Income Tax on a post card type . Have you seen the US Tax Code recently? Suppose all that dates me a bit, huh? ;-)


Barbara Rasmussen 2 years, 10 months ago

the Mayor stating that he had never heard of a structure fire spreading and causing a forest fire? In 2012 embers from a structure fire in Prescott ignited brush and 300 yards away and burnt 1.5 acres. Multiple fire agencies were called in because of limited water resources in the area. Also in 2012 Arizona had a large wildfire of almost 10,000 acres that affected the community of Crown King that was started by a structure fire. There are many more incidents of structure fires igniting wildfires but I put these two on here because they both occurred in areas much like Payson. It does happen and it can happen and God Forbid it ever happens here in Payson.


Ronald Hamric 2 years, 10 months ago

Ms. Rasmussen,

I think we can all appreciate that those who have been elected to the Payson City Council have little if any actual experience in firefighting or the Fire Service. One simply cannot expect politicians to be "expert' at the myriad of issues that they will be challenged to deal with. That is why they should place more credence on recommendations of those who do have such training, knowledge, and experience in any given area. I don't recommend anyone make a knee jerk decision simply due to public pressure, without fully understanding the problem to begin with. But the IUWIC is not some new things that there is no experience with. And I'm certain, as the Chief's mentioned, that the code is always subject to being amended to better suit the needs of the adopting entity. All that is procedural and this City Council has a lot of experience in making "modifications" to existing law if it suits their need.

In the city I worked for, we lost six square blocks of homes and apartments in one fire, right in the middle of a major metropolitan city. No forests, no wild land. Just wooden shake shingle roofs, a strong Santa Ana wind condition, and a palm tree arching in the adjacent power lines due to the wind. From that one incident, the local politicians changed the requirements for roofing in future developments and the replacement of existing roofs, to more non-combustible products. The developers favored their ability to use cheaper materials if they chose, but in light of the experience they accepted the rationale behind the change in the codes and simply passed on the additional costs to the homebuyers. Via that code change, much of the problems of a future recurrence of such a fire was greatly reduced.


Teel McClanahan 2 years, 10 months ago

Ronald it is true that many of the fire code rules are the result of significant tragic experience but many of them didn't. One example is the rule that if more than 3 people can be in a commercial building it must have 2 exits. Go into your bedroom to see the absurdity of that rule which because at least 3 people could be in it does it need a 2nd exit or is that just obviously ridiculous?

Like Anita said the people making the codes would be out of a job if they didn't keep making them stricter. There is no cost-benefit analysis of these rules. No looking at how the total building codes have added a very large amount to the cost of building a house or business. Cost that make home ownership to high for many.

Cost that, particular in smaller communities with fewer customers, make getting enough profit to pay for a building to high to build and have a business. Example: The Pine/Strawberry Fire Department now requires that any new commercial building 1000 sq ft or larger have a sprinkler system, around 10,000 to install at only 1000 sq ft. There is not enough business to pay for that extra cost that for that size building is a doubtful necessity. The answer I got about that problem from someone from the fire dept. was, 'Well don't build then." That attitude which is evident is all these comments supporting more costly rules without questioning them.


Ronald Hamric 2 years, 10 months ago

First let me address the example you used. The imperative word in both your references is "commercial" and "residential (bedroom)". Apples and oranges. Fire Safety Codes for commercial/business/educational/assembly are markedly different than those set for residential habitation. Codes pertaining to residential structures are more frequently driven by health AND safety issues. I can only speak of personal experience while I was doing my stint as a Fire Inspector/Arson Investigator. And please accept that was over 35 years ago and many things have changed in that time. There was no such thing as 'The Internet" back then. ;-)

Once again, most of the codes for places where large numbers of people may be or gather, are generally driven by past experiences (usually not good ones). The requirement for the number of exits, emergency lighting, readily identified exits, distance to exists, etc. is largely determined by "occupant load". There is a formula for determining "occupant load" based upon the nature of the building and it's intended use. That's one reason you will often see the signs posted that tell what the approved occupant load is. And those again were based upon past experience where too many people were present and the means of leaving the building due to fire or other calamity were in adequate, contributing to added life loss.

I will try to address the "sprinkler" requirement but again, I am not that current with what existing "codes" may or may not require. There is a symbiotic relationship between Fire Protection and Insurance companies. That relationship dates back to the beginning of this nation when Benjamin Franklin was a Fire Chief. Originally there were no "city/municipal" Fire Departments. Businesses and citizens who could afford it, were protected by Fire Companies which were in the direct employ of the insurance companies. Although that is no longer the case, the ISO (Insurance Services Org) still has great impact on Fire Departments, their services, and laws/codes relative to that service. Rather than try to explain it all, I will provide this link that can give you some insight as to how things such as sprinkler requirements come about.

It's all a big pot and in that pot are Public Safety agencies, Insurance Companies, and most importantly, Tort Lawyers. It would be hard to determine which is directing the actions/policies of the other. One thing is certain, the people at the bottom of that chain are the ones who pay for it all, the taxpayers. As frustrating and complex as it is, the only real input we at the bottom have, is at the ballot box, and I wouldn't put too much faith in that. Just saying.


Anita Christy 2 years, 10 months ago

Mr. Hamric, the issue with forcing 4% of the private sector to do its part in relieving 96% of a burden caused by the federal government is germane to this discussion. We, who own 4% of the Arizona, are being told by those who own 96% of it to clean up our act. We 4% are to bear the burden not just for cleaning up our act, but also fund theirs. ENOUGH!

It's time that American citizens began standing up to these bullies.

There is a bill in the Arizona State legislature right now HB2700 that is a first step in taking back our lands and thus having far more control over them.

Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, over 6 million acres of state lands have been taken across the nation by the federal government. Under President Clinton alone, about 100,000 acres of Arizona land was taken in the 1990s. This bill would create an inventory of all the Arizona lands (and their values) taken since we became a state (1912), and would empower the AZ Attorney General to investigate the legitimacy of the takings, and to attempt to get lands returned to AZ, and to protect AZ lands from future federal takings.


Ronald Hamric 2 years, 10 months ago

Ms. Christy,

Once again, most people who are concerned and paying attention to the fire threat that Payson and surrounding communities face, are familiar with the circumstances and data you speak of. My question to you, and I do agree with your assessment of the larger political problems, is what do you recommend be done in the "short term" (1 to 3 years) to address the fire potential situation? The other issues you mentioned, even if they are correctable, will take decades to resolve. Changing people's habits, plus even remotely trying to change the entrenched Federal Government is not something the City Council of Payson can do with the wave of a pen and a telephone. What would you suggest the Council do to address, lets say, vacant property within town limits that are basically fuel concentrations overloaded with weeds, brush, and vegetation that are contributory to the overall threat? Even better, were you sitting on that council, what steps would you recommend? And remember, since you are against adopting more codes (laws) and you suggested simply relying on "people's personal responsibilities, I am curious as to your proposed, realistic solutions that those folks can actually act on, in light of their fiduciary responsibilities to the entire community. We can all point to things that brought us to this point with some accuracy, many of which you already alluded to. But what the Fire Chief's were proposing to the Payson City Council regarding the IWUIC is something that can be done fairly quickly and start addressing the problem in the short term. If something is not done in the near term, this may almost be a moot point as the "fire" will have already come and gone while we are all still trying to find the "perfect solution" that make everyone happy.


Pat Randall 2 years, 10 months ago

Teel, Go into your bedroom and I bet you will find a window that can be used as an exit in case of fire. When we built a home in Gilbert, I wanted high, small windows in my bedroom. The building inspector said no, They have to be low enough and large enough to be a fire escape. They also said I couldn't have a door with a window that went into the garage, even tho it was an open garage with no door. So put in a solid door and after inspection put in my door with the window.


Pat Randall 2 years, 10 months ago

The town wouldn't make the Red Elephant fix their building according to fire code and the health dept. didn't require a lot of things other food places have to have. Depends on who owns the buildings.


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