Driving into Paradise, Calif. David Mikulak of Natural Beauty Tree Works in Payson, marveled at how much the forested California retirement community reminded him of Payson.
“It felt a lot like Payson — ponderosa pines and big canyons,” he said. “The town even had a road — it’s called Skyway, going up the hill. It looks exactly like driving up the Beeline.”
Just three days later, he stood on the main street of Paradise amid the ashes left by the Camp Fire.
“All the businesses were gone ... wiped out — it felt like Payson was wiped out,” he said.
A flame of terror licked up his spine as he saw Payson’s possible future in the destruction of Paradise.
Nested in a forest, neither community had prepared for a wildfire.
Homes had brush-choked yards.
The many manufactured homes were tinderboxes.
Neither community had a wildland-urban interface (WUI) building code.
And the local electric company, Pacific Gas and Electric, had just started to clear the trees away from lines.
Standing, aghast in the ruins, he resolved to return to Payson on a Paul Revere-like mission — The wildfire is coming, the wildfire is coming — Payson has to prepare.
“If I could sum everything up, I would like to take one picture of every house in Paradise and show them to Payson residents. Let the reality sink in ... just look at that picture of everything you own — there is nothing. Even the plates were melted. You can’t find anything to keep of yours,” he said.
“I saw Payson in that town. So many similarities — the reluctance to do anything ... the thickness of some of the brush in the yards — there is just so much growth ... if I were a millionaire, I would schedule everybody’s property and we would Firewise this town one property at a time.”
Mikulak added, “When they were about to make a town ordinance in Payson, they voted it down,” he said. “There was a lot of resistance from people. They said, ‘I don’t want anybody telling me what I can and cannot do with my property.’”
The U.S. Forest Service, recognizing the increasing threat of wildfires, conducted research through Jack Cohen in 1995. This research proved Firewising yards and homes works.
To see firsthand how a crown fire affects homes, Cohen built structures in a forested setting, and then set a crown fire.
Homes, without brush and ladder fuels for at least 20 yards around the house, survived the crown fire.
These homes also had non-flammable roofs and double paned windows. Cohen found well-painted wooden walls could withstand a flame front only 130 feet away from the home, so long as other Firewise principles (brush removal) had been implemented.
The most sobering finding in Cohen’s research: even if government agencies manage the forest, the ultimate responsibility for a fire-safe home lies with the homeowner.
“A wildland fire does not spread to homes unless the homes meet the fuel and heat requirement sufficient for ignition and continued combustion,” wrote Cohen in 1999. “The flammables adjacent to a home can be managed with the home’s materials and design chosen to minimize potential firebrand (ember) ignitions. This can occur regardless of how intensely or fast spreading other fires are burning.”
Seeing the devastation
It was a twist of fate that Mikulak found himself at the epicenter of the most devastating fire in California history.
Pacific Gas and Electric Company hired Mikulak, an International Society of Arboriculture board-certified arborist, a few weeks before the Camp Fire to walk parts of the 7,000 miles of lines making sure trees didn’t threaten service or create a fire.
Part of his job brought him to Paradise.
He immediately noticed the failure to clear yards of brush.
“You don’t get to look down on Paradise, you’re among the tall canopy of forest,” he said.
Mikulak saw the result after the Camp Fire consumed 14,000 homes and killed at least 85 people in Paradise.
“(Arborists) were the first ones to go in there,” he said. “There was smoke everywhere. We had to wear respirators. You’re breathing in all these toxins. Businesses that had lined the main street were gone or had walls missing. I saw the bank with half the wall gone. I could see the safe ... I looked at the liquor store and you could see on part of the wall it was blue or green or red from the plastic smear left from melting bottles.”
Mikulak, along with his fellow arborists had to help PG&E restore power. He said the fire had burned out trees threatening the lines and poles. Until the power company removed those trees, the town remained dark.
Mikulak and his fellow arborists would mark trees as P1 or P2 depending on how damaged the trees were.
“Some trees burned three-quarters out. You could almost push them over — 150-foot-tall trees,” he said. “P1 meant an imminent hazard. We would call our lead and wait until the tree was out.”
P2 meant the tree would not live, but they could stay up until crews had time to remove them.
Mikulak went to one cul-de-sac where only the chimney remained.
Friends of his who had moved from Santa Cruz (where Mikulak went to university) to Paradise for the similar beauty without the price tag, asked him to look up addresses.
“Every day I made it my mission to look up two or three addresses on Google and visit,” he said. “I would take a picture of the actual plot. Every one of them was gone.”
Helping Payson wake up to the danger
Mikulak said he couldn’t wait to get home to Payson to spread the word about preparing for the inevitable wildfire.
“My main concern is to somehow take the trauma of that situation and deliver that to the people here. It’s got to come home,” he said. “It has to strike in the hearts of these people ... we really need to go full bore. Paradise will never be like it was. With the amount of houses gone, people will say, ‘I’m not going to live there again.’”
He said he has spoken to many Payson residents who have expressed concern about losing the forested feel of their homes if they Firewise.
Mikulak said if done properly, a property would look cleaner and natural with the floor under trees clear of brush. A well-trained landscaper will winnow down stands of scrub oak and manzanita — both highly flammable — to only leave the strongest bushes.
Mikulak said in addition to removing brush close to the house, homeowners should trim brush under trees that could set the lower branches on fire. “It looks like a national forest, beautifully manicured.”
Mikulak said fire can race through thick brush. The Camp Fire “went the length of one football field a second,” said Mikulak.
He said the fire whipped through Paradise so quickly many burned up in their bathtubs trying to save themselves from the flames. Others burned in their beds, not even aware of the fire.
“We really need to get something going, especially for seniors. Those were the people who didn’t make it out. They didn’t have enough time to put their clothes on,” he said.
One of the most astonishing things he saw — anthropologists sifting through the ashes to find any remnant of a bone.
“They only found fragments and chips of bones,” said Mikulak.
Both Mikulak and USFS researcher Cohen agree — homeowners must recognize their responsibility as the best line of defense in a wildfire.
“They never realize there is a price tag wanting to move into areas where fire is a natural part of the wildland interface ... when human beings want to go inhabit those areas, the first thing to do when moving in is to Firewise,” said Mikulak.
He said “There were houses that were spared. There were just single trees pruned up nicely and the grass was intact. The grass was green after the fire, yet all these houses around it burned down.”
Mikulak said if he doesn’t do something with the traumatic images he carries around in his head, he will burn up.
“Everything that happens in our life, we can choose. I could fall into depression and become alcoholic or I can make something beautiful and be on fire so it changes the whole scope of this town,” he said.
Because of his work and training, he already has PowerPoint presentations available.
He had gone to all of the local media to speak.
Now, he hopes homeowner associations, government agencies and other organizations will invite him to speak.
His message? Stewardship.
Already, he presents this message to Payson Elementary School every year, with the help of sapling donations from Plant Fair Nursery.
“Every year, I read ‘The Lorax’ (by Dr. Seuss) to the students at Payson Elementary School. That story is the reason I became an arborist,” he said. “In the end, he flicks that seed and says, ‘Plant it, and treat it with care and maybe the Lorax and all his friends will return.’ Then we give out a sapling. The whole overarching message is that element of stewardship. We’re all here because it’s so beautiful. Being good stewards is to take care of the area by limiting the amount of fuels on our property. We have to remember that the responsibility of humans inhabiting the forest is to Firewise. Over everything ... there is an element of personal responsibility.”
He understood that before he stood in the ashes of Paradise.
He understood that when he drove through the towering, tightly packed ponderosa pines on the single road into Paradise, the single road out.
He understood that when he first noticed the brushy yards, the thickets of small trees, the dried out eaves and the overhanging porches of Paradise.
But now, it haunts him.
We’re just like Paradise.
The transformation of Pieper Mansion is almost complete. Reportedly built in 1893 by August and Wilhelmina Pieper, it remains one of the oldest structures in Rim Country.
It had fallen into disrepair over the years, in danger of collapsing. Then Geoff and Sandi Wolf came to the rescue.
The Wolfs purchased the 124-year-old house and adjacent Sidles Adobe Mud House and cabins on Aug. 3, 2017 and began a long labor of love.
Main Street can be considered the soul of Payson, home to several of the oldest local buildings, some in varying stages of disrepair and neglect. The challenge is to bring them back to life while maintaining their historical feel, preserving the character and history of the town.
The Wolfs are part of a select group working to revitalize Main Street, hoping to nudge the street along as a destination for residents and visitors alike.
The Wolfs have family ties to the building.
Geoff said, “We have wanted to buy this house for a long time. My wife Sandi’s great uncle, Walter Lazear, once lived in the Pieper Mansion, so we have a family connection to the place.”
The Wolfs stripped everything down to the bare bones and saved all the original wood and materials to reuse in the renovated house. They built cupboard doors with original wood and rust-colored metal from the roof, and purchased a claw foot bath tub for the second bathroom, circa 1903.
Additions to the house include a porch covering the front and side doors. They also put in a covered patio where they will serve guests breakfast one day. The new metal roof once again sports a “widow’s walk,” iron-railed platform. A new iron staircase leads up to a completely renovated storage room.
It is breathtaking to walk inside the remodeled house after a similar tour a year ago. Back then, the ceilings were rotting and caved in, layers of wallpaper peeled off the walls, the roof in every room leaked.
The open plan living, dining and kitchen area has the original shiplap on the walls. This wood was milled locally, sawblade marks still visible. The wood had been covered with drywall and up to eight layers of wallpaper.
Geoff believes the house would have sold earlier if people had understood the value of the wood within.
The old kitchen was long and narrow with a mud floor. The new one has been built in the southeast corner of the great room where some walls were removed to open up the space.
The master bathroom has a walk-in shower with intricate tile and pebble design, with a unique sink mounted on the wall.
Hand-fashioned hanging barn doors slide open easily in place of conventional doors. The kitchen features granite countertops with flecks of gold, stainless steel appliances, wooden cabinets and an original wood floor with accent design.
The windows are all new yet conform to the design and size of the originals.
Exterior siding was specially ordered with new wood, but the Wolfs maintained the original look as closely as possible.
They are masters at finding unique fixtures and decor to perfect the overall feel of the home. Geoff said “Savvy shopping allowed us to stay within budget.”
Sandi’s mother and stepfather Terri and Pete Spires came through the house. Terri could remember what the house looked like in the 1980s and was in awe.
Initially, people asked why they would buy the property and thought they “were nuts” said Sandi, but now they understand.
Sandi said, “If you walk into a place, it can be collapsing, but if you have a good feel about it, then you know it’s going to work.”
Sandi said, “My grandmother was a Lazear, and my great-grandmother was a Herron who married a Lazear. They had the Herron Hotel, when it burned down they moved to Winslow around 1918.”
Sandi said, “I talked to the granddaughter of the Piepers — Sue Pieper Jones — she called me at work. She was ecstatic about the renovation.”
One important point the Wolfs would like people to know: They understand that people are excited about the transformation, but it is their residence and they ask everyone to respect their privacy.
Some people just walk across the property without permission, even walking into the house to look around while the Wolfs are working on it. Eventually, the property will be fenced, but for now, please treat it as any other private residence.
As for the time and expense the couple has devoted to this property, Geoff said, “We come into this world with nothing and go out with nothing, so in between you gotta have fun. God didn’t put us on this earth to make us miserable.”
On the last day to enroll in an Affordable Care Act (ACA) health plan, Republican efforts to reduce enrollment appear to be paying off.
Enrollment in the comprehensive health plans listed on the healthcare.gov website have dropped by about 18 percent this year, although the numbers could rise with a last-minute surge in enrollment.
This year Congress eliminated the penalty for not having health insurance and cut the budget to market the ACA plans almost in half. That includes a 74 percent reduction in the money for “navigators,” experts who could help people figure out which plan to pick.
In addition, Congress authorized the creation of cut-rate plans, with much larger deductibles. Such plans may cost 30 to 40 percent less per month than full coverage plans, but exclude mandated services like maternity, mental health, birth control and others. They must cover pre-existing conditions, but can charge people more based on their medical history. Many require people to cover the first $7,000 a year in medical costs out of pocket. Critics said the cut-rate plans could drain away healthy people who help keep any health insurance plan affordable.
For the first time since the ACA passed in 2014, the number of people without health insurance has risen nationally — jumping 700,000 to 27.4 million. In Arizona the number rose by 12,000. However, only 12 percent of Arizona residents lack medical insurance, compared to 21 percent in 2013.
Nationally, 12 million people have ACA plans. That includes 150,000 people in Arizona who have signed up for an ACA plan. The great majority get a sizable subsidy, based on income.
For instance, a 35-year-old, nonsmoking woman making $28,000 could get coverage ranging from $88 to $503 monthly, depending on the plan. A 48-year-old father of two making $30,000 could get a family plan and have the whole monthly premium covered by the subsidy.
On the other hand, a 56-year-old, non-smoking woman making $55,000 annually would not get a subsidy — and so could end up paying $900 monthly.
To shop for a plan in Gila County go to healthcare.gov or call 1-800-318-2596. Healthcare.gov can also recommend insurance brokers in a given area to help make a plan selection.
On average, the cost of a plan dropped 4 percent in Arizona this year — after several years of double-digit increases.
Gila County has one of the highest uninsured rates in the state. More than 30 percent of county residents are enrolled in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), which provides health care for families at or near the poverty line. The ACA provided federal funding to boost the income threshold for coverage by AHCCCS from 100 percent of poverty to 138 percent of poverty. This enabled an additional 600,000 people to enroll in AHCCCS, including several thousand in Gila County. Most of the state’s hospitals supported the state imposition of a fee to cover any state cost in that expansion. Hospitals end up with a huge cost to cover the emergency room treatment of people without insurance, especially in rural areas.
However, Arizona has joined with 19 other states seeking to force the outright repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The lawsuit asserts Congress did not have the constitutional authority to require people to get health insurance or pay a penalty. Even though Congress has now eliminated the penalty, the law still requires people to have insurance. If the lawsuit succeeds, the Affordable Care Act could collapse — along with its provision that all insurance plans cover people with pre-existing conditions.
In addition, a group of Arizona legislators including Rim Country’s representatives, continue to pursue a lawsuit that would reverse Arizona’s decision to expand AHCCCS with money from the Affordable Care Act. That lawsuit maintains the hospital fee that covered all the state costs for the expansion and added another $50 million to the general fund was a tax, not a fee. A voter-approved initiative requires a two-thirds legislative vote to impose any new tax. The hospital fee drew only a bare majority.
After five years, Payson Unified School Superintendent Greg Wyman will leave the district at the end of the current school year to take the reins at the J.O. Combs District near Queen Creek.
When Wyman came to the district in 2014, he had hoped it would be his last job before retirement, but family concerns drove him to make the change.
“I think the world of Payson and the people. It’s been a wonderful experience,” said Wyman. “My dad had some health issues that came up this summer. Most of my career decisions have been based on family.”
The decision to leave surprised PUSD board president Barbara Underwood, but she had an inkling when Wyman took uncharacteristic days off to visit family.
“It was a surprise,” said Underwood, then she changed her mind. “It was and it wasn’t. He is usually there morning through night all the time, but he took a couple of days off to be with his dad.”
She said Wyman had also expressed regret he wasn’t physically closer to his dad who lives in the southern part of the state.
What Underwood most admired about Wyman? His commitment to the whole district.
“I think he’s been fair with all programs. Whether it is special education or gifted education or sports or fine arts or whether it’s CTE, I feel he has definitely been fair with allocating funds,” she said.
Not only did Wyman support programs in the district, he also supported programs that enhanced the district through outside sources.
Aspire Arizona Foundation board member Sanja Long will miss Wyman as he supported the mission of the education organization from the get-go. Aspire Arizona partners with Payson High School and Gila Community College to bring dual-credit classes with credits for both high school graduation and college to the PUSD students. The dual-credit program started during Wyman’s administration.
“All I can say, when we first had the meeting that included Jeff Simon (PHS principal) and Pam Butterfield (GCC Payson campus dean) and the Aspire board, he always said, ‘This is great, whatever the district can do to help,’” said Long. “He embraced it.”
Underwood, who remains president of the PUSD board, said despite a transition from the old to new board, she plans on hitting the ground running in the race to hire a new superintendent.
“The new board doesn’t take effect until Jan. 14, so we figured if we met on Dec. 17 we can get the ball rolling on advertising for the position,” she said. “You want to be out there early ... and hopefully get better candidates.”
At the Dec. 10 meeting, the board voted to accept Wyman’s resignation. Underwood plans to get an ad out with the Arizona School Boards Association during the holiday season, just in case someone has an interest in finding a new job.
In the past, the district not only had an internal interview process, but involved the community as well. Underwood said the district held a community meeting with all of the superintendent candidates then invited members of the community to fill out a rubric to identify their favorite candidates. The board checked in on the community’s feedback after they interviewed all candidates.
“It is important we do the community process,” she said. “We did our interviews and then we looked at what the community said. We often said, ‘Oh — look the community agreed with our top two picks.’”
This will be the fourth superintendent hiring process Underwood has participated in during her tenure on the board.
Long said she really appreciated that not only was the community involved at the hiring process, but that Wyman continued that commitment to the community throughout his time at PUSD.
“When he came to town and put a bunch of people in the community on a committee, I thought it was so innovative to think about what students in 20 years would need,” she said. “To me, I felt he really has a passion for education and these kids.”
Underwood said Wyman showed his support of the kids and staff by showing up.
“I really liked that he got out and tried to attend as many functions as he could,” she said. “The Christmas party, sporting events, and the science fair — he tried to be out and visible.”
She said he walked his talk to inspire staff.
“He leads by example. He is there all hours to make sure the job is done,” she said.
When asked what words of wisdom Wyman would give an incoming PUSD superintendent he said, “I think biggest thing (and) what I try to do with my leadership style is ... trying to create a culture where people are empowered.”
Some of the things Wyman has implemented to empower staff and the community — the Heroes of Education award, longtime retiring employee recognition and individual campus recognitions.
Wyman predicts the biggest challenge the new superintendent will have to grapple with is one that has plagued the district for years — declining enrollment.
“There are not enough jobs up here,” he said. “So long as you lose kids, that continues to make the budget tighter and tighter.”
He’s proud of some of the legacies he has left.
“I feel we are positioned well with technology, with (high school) CTE and more extracurricular activities than most districts this size,” he said. “We have good elementary schools and middle school and the alternative (high) school PCS.”
He ended by praising the people of Rim Country.
“The bottom line is ... we’ve got great people here,” he said.