Fire Code Furor

Payson seeks to cut danger despite council’s qualms

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Despite the council’s qualms about the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Code, the Payson Town Council is moving forward with an effort to reduce the risk the next megafire could consume the whole town, says Mayor Kenny Evans.

“There is a huge difference between a building code versus trying to develop a comprehensive, Firewise community,” said Evans.

“What the council said is that we believe the fire issue poses a huge challenge as it relates to the forest. But we need to treat this issue in a way that is unique because we have immersed ourselves in a forest condition,” said the mayor in reaction to criticism of remarks made by council members during a recent study session on revising both building codes and in the codes that affect the dangerous buildup of brush and trees.

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Payson Mayor Kenny Evans

Evans said he and Town Attorney Tim Wright are drafting proposed revisions in the town codes to move toward a more Firewise community — which mostly involves keeping brush and trees cleared so a crown fire can’t sweep through town.

The town will also set up a citizens’ committee under the leadership of Councilor Fred Carpenter to gather ideas and reactions to ways to improve fire protection for the community, said Evans.

The council will also have another study session on the building code revisions that pertain to fire protection in June.

Currently, town codes actually discourage people from clearing trees. Even if a neglected or abandoned lot became so choked with brush and weeds that it posed a fire threat to the entire neighborhood, the town has limited legal authority to force the owner to clear the hazardous thickets, said Evans.

He said the town must also develop an alliance with homeowners associations to clear away dangerous thickets of trees and brush

“It’s clear now that they (the council) understand that one of the key functions is to educate people how important to forest health they can be,” he said.

However, changes in the state law have made it extremely difficult to require homeowners to do anything that would minimize natural fire hazards — even when tree thickets threaten neighbors.

“Without amendments to the codes, one could violate Proposition 208 if we said, ‘You have to spend more money on your property than the owner before you had spent.’”

He acknowledged that the sea of trees with interlocking branches that covers Payson could pose a dire threat to the whole community if a major fire approached the town during the kinds of dry, windy conditions that drove the Rodeo Chediski Fire and the Wallow Fire. In that case, the fire raced from treetop to treetop generating such intense heat, trees exploded into flames. Such a fire can throw burning embers a mile ahead of the fireline.

Many of the houses in Payson have trees crowding right up against the house, with carpets of pine needles on the roof and filling the rain gutters. Such conditions make it easy for fires to race through the treetops and then potentially from house to house through a whole neighborhood.

Evans said hardly any houses in Payson conform to WUI or even strict Firewise standards, including the homes of town officials.

Fortunately, some homeowners associations and neighborhoods have worked with residents to encourage brush clearing and a Firewise approach. Some have provided bins for brush and tree limbs for homeowners who clear their property. Evans said the town staff is now investigating how Payson can promote those efforts. The town can also aggressively seek state and federal grants to help cover the cost of the brush clearing, he said.

The study session revealed far less council consensus when it comes to changing the building codes to reduce fire danger for future construction. The town’s general plan calls for a build out population of about 40,000, which means the town remains only about half built.

The International Fire Code and the Wildlands-Urban-Interface (WUI) code both include many pages of standards and requirements to reduce the chance that a wildfire will sweep through town and set houses on fire. Those requirements include things like flame-resistant materials on roofs, decks and siding, covering for ventilation so sparks can’t float into attics, and numerous other standards.

Council members at the study session said the international standards seemed too strict and unwieldy. Moreover, some said they didn’t like the idea of giving code enforcement officials employed by the town the broad-ranging power to interpret those codes. They feared that adding such requirements would make homes from $15,000 to $25,000 more expensive and perhaps discourage new development.

The issue has simmered just beneath the surface since last year, when the town council eliminated the fire marshal’s position — citing budgetary concerns. However, the fire marshal had come in for criticism from some former and current council members for allegedly too-strict interpretations of the fire code. The fire department had clashed with builders and the recommendations of town planning staff on several occasions. This led critics to claim that the council eliminated the fire marshal position in part to make the town more business friendly for new development.

Also last April, the town’s building advisory board rejected the fire department’s plea to adopt the international building code revisions relating to fire and the WUI code as well. The board reportedly deadlocked on whether to adopt the international code or modify it to suit Payson conditions. But the council didn’t take up the issue until December, as part of an overhaul of the 1,000-page building code. And the council didn’t publicly discuss the issue until the study session last week.

The harsh statements made by council members during that study session about giving “bureaucrats” too much power and discouraging development with a too-tough code stoked fears that the town would lower crucial fire standards to avoid irritating builders.

However, Evans said town staff members are working to incorporate the council’s concerns in an overhaul of the entire building code, particularly the portions that relate to fire safety. He said that includes potentially key elements of the WUI code.

For instance, he said it’s true that a strict WUI code relating to clearing trees and brush from around houses would mostly affect new development and providing incentives for brush clearing.

However, if the town adopted the international WUI code without revisions, then a homeowner who wanted a permit to put on a new porch or add a bedroom might find he would have to replace the roof on his house to comply with the WUI code in order to get a permit for the improvements. The council has scheduled a series of study sessions on the various sections of the building code, hoping to work through the whole 1,000-page document. The session to deal with the fire code provisions including elements of the WUI code is scheduled for June.

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