Jeffrey Aal Paradise Fire Insurance

Jeffrey Aal has worked with insurance at most of the California wildfires. The Camp Fire astonished him with its devastation.

Someone must have screwed up in Paradise.

That’s what you’re thinking: Someone made a tragic mistake.

That’s why 85 people died when a wildfire swept over the California community last year, consuming 19,000 buildings and wiping out the whole community.

They must have been living in a thicket of trees, without buffer zones or fire-adapted building codes. They must have failed to set up an emergency evacuation and alert plan to give people time to escape the flames. They must have not taken the risk of fire seriously. Not like us. We’re ready.

No. We’re not.

Almost every single forested community in Rim Country and the White Mountains faces a much greater fire danger and a higher risk of mass casualties than Paradise, Calif.

That conclusion emerges from a study by The Arizona Republic and other USA today newspapers, which rated the fire danger facing 5,000 western communities. Some 525 face a greater danger than Paradise — including almost every major community in Rim Country and the White Mountains.

The project compared 5,000 communities to Paradise when it came to the key ingredients of that tragedy. The study found the death toll directly related to the number of older residents, the number of residents with disabilities, the adequacy of evacuation routes and the number of mobile homes in the community.

Paradise had a risk rating of 3.8 on a 5-point scale.

In Rim Country, virtually every community scored above 4.5 on the same scale. That includes Pine (4.7), Payson (4.4), Star Valley (4.6), Strawberry (4.6), Young (4.6), Tonto Village (4.8), Christopher Creek (4.8), Kohl’s Ranch (4.8), Haigler Creek (4.7) Round Valley (4.7), East Verde Estates (4.6), Flowing Springs (4.7), Freedom Acres (4.8), Beaver Valley (4.7), Washington Park (4.7) and Geronimo Estates (4.6).

In the White Mountains, nearly every forested community faced a danger much greater than Paradise. The communities in the pinyon-juniper chaparral zone faced a danger lower than Paradise, including Snowflake and Taylor. The communities facing the greatest danger include Linden (3.9), Show Low (4.2), Pinetop/Lakeside (4.4), White Mountain Lake (4.0), Pinetop Country Club (4.4), North Fork (4.7), Whiteriver (4.1), Rainbow City (4.1), Fort Apache (4.0), Seven Mile (4.0), East Fork (4.1) and Vernon (4.2).

That measures the danger a megafire will consume those communities. In addition, many of those communities also have a much higher risk of mass casualties than Paradise based on the number of elderly and disabled residents, the presence of mobile homes or a limit on evacuation routes.

Paradise had an alert system — like most communities in the White Mountains and Payson. But like many communities here — the alert system has never faced such a test. The flames roared into town before officials could decide whether to issue an alert. However, many — if not most — of the 5,000 rural communities in the West have no alert system at all, the study concluded.

And it gets worse.

The study didn’t look at two critical measures of fire preparedness — the adoption of fire-adapted building codes and a Firewise brush-clearing ordinance.

A wildland-urban interface (WUI) building code mostly covers new construction and requires practices that reduce the odds embers from a nearby fire will set scores of homes on fire at once. A WUI code requires fire-resistant building materials, fireproof eaves, enclosed porches and decks, fire-resistant roofing — all to prevent houses from catching fire easily when bombarded by embers.

A Firewise brush-clearing code focuses on keeping the brush away from the sides of a house and branches from overhanging the roof so a ground fire won’t quickly catch a house on fire.

A WUI code and a Firewise ordinance help prevent embers raining down from a nearby fire from igniting houses while the fire fronts still a mile away. If one house catches fire, it dramatically increases the chance neighboring houses will also burn. Paradise underscored that lesson, with scores of houses catching fire under the rain of embers and then spreading the fire through town faster than many people could flee — especially the elderly and the disabled.

Flagstaff and Prescott have WUI codes and tough Firewise ordinances, adopted after tragic fires in those communities. But not a single community in the White Mountains or Rim Country have such stringent codes — not Payson, nor Show Low, nor Pine nor Pinetop, nor Heber, nor Young — not one.

Communities with a lot of older and disabled residents face a special hazard. The study of the deaths in Paradise showed the elderly and disabled accounted for a shockingly high percentage of those who died. They faced much greater problems with transportation, mobility and the speed with which they could react. As a result, many tried to ride out the fire with tragic results.

So here’s a summary of how communities in the White Mountains and Rim Country compare to Paradise, both in the base fire danger and in the additional risk factors for mass fatalities. You can look at maps and charts of all 5,000 western communities rated on the website.

Risks include:

1) Potential for a wildfire based on FS criteria, vegetation, etc.

2) Evacuation: The ratio of households to major escape routes. Paradise had six exit routes for a ratio of one exit for every 1,818 households. Had fire approached from another direction, they’d have only had one exit, according to the map.

3) Age: Older residents need more time to evacuate and may depend on others for transportation and health care. They’re also less likely to be connected to emergency warning systems based on cell phones. In Paradise, 10 percent of residents were older than 75. The median age of the people who died was 72 — and 62 of the 85 deaths were people older than 62. Of small communities in the West, 125 have both a higher wildfire potential and a higher percentage of elderly residents, including many in Rim Country and the White Mountains.

4) Disabilities: In Paradise, one-quarter of the residents had a disability, Some 101 small communities across the West have higher wildfire potential and more disabled residents than Paradise.

5) Alerts: Many communities don’t have an alert system for counties and tribal governments. Butte County — which includes Paradise — can broadcast messages to mobile phones but had never activated the system and did not send a Wireless Emergency Alert that day. Analysis identified 1,529 communities that cannot send alerts — and 2,506 others that can send alerts but have never actually used them.

6) Mobile Homes: Even when built to code, mobile homes pose greater risk due to close spacing and materials used. In Paradise, 1,300 households were in mobile homes — which was one in eight. Of the 85 deaths, 37 lived in mobile homes.

Risk ratings

Paradise, Calif.:

Wildfire hazard potential: 3.81

Over 75: 10.9 percent

Disabilities: 25 percent

Mobile homes: 13 percent

Evacuation: 1,800 households/evacuation route


15,000 population

8,200 households

Wildfire potential: 4.43

Evacuation constraint: not reported

Older than 75: 16 percent

Disability: 23 percent

Mobile homes: 3.9 percent:

Star Valley:

1,816 population

1,217 households

Wildfire potential: 4.59

Evacuation: 608/households/exit

Over 75: 12 percent

Disability: 19 percent

Mobile homes: 33 percent


Pop: 1,591

Households: 2,204

Wildfire potential: 4.68

Evacuation: 735/households/exit

Over 75: 16 percent

Disability: 14 percent

Mobile homes: 6 percent


Pop: 714

Households: 1,077

Wildfire: 4.64

Evacuation: 269

Over 75: 16 percent

Disability: 14 percent


Pop: 421

Households: 520

Wildfire potential: 4.58

Evacuation: 260/household/route

Over 75: 25 percent

Disability: 35 percent

Tonto Village:

Pop: 368

Households: 258

Wildfire hazard: 4.78

Evacuation: 129

Over 75: 8.2 percent

Christopher Creek:

Pop: 86

Households: 356

Wildfire potential: 4.81

Over 75: 8.1 percent

Disability: 30 percent

Kohl’s Ranch:

Pop:. 106

Households: 170

Wildfire hazard: 4.81

Evacuation: 85

Over 75: 0

Disability: 26 percent

Haigler Creek:

Pop: 29

Households: 48

Wildfire potential: 4.74

Evacuation: 48

Over 75: 0

Disability: 31 percent

Round Valley:

Pop: 832

Households: 266

Wildfire potential: 4.67

Evacuation: 133

Over 75: 4.5

Disabilities: 14 percent


Pop: 642

Households: 261

Wildfire: 3.47

Evacuation: 261

Over 75: 5.6

Disability: 29 percent

Mobile home: 0

Deer Creek:

Pop: 185

Households” 111

Wildfire: 3.17

Over 75: 9.2

Disability: 14 percent

Tonto Basin:

Pop: 1,601

Households: 1,396

Wildfire: 2.89

Evacuation: 465

Over 75: 9.2

Disability: 31 percent

East Verde Estates:

Pop: 167

Households: 148

Wildfire hazard: 4.59

Evacuation: 74

Over 75: 29 percent

Flowing Springs:

Pop: 44

Households: 30

Wildfire potential: 4.73

Evacuation: 30

Over 75: 48 percent

Disability: 13.5 percent

Mesa del Caballo:

Pop: 569

Households: 287

Alert: Yes

Wildfire: 4.7

Evacuation: 144

Over 75: 4.9

Disability: 27 percent

Freedom Acres:

Pop: 113

Households 54

Wildfire: 4.75

Evacuation: 26

Over 75: 15 percent

Disability: 26 percent

Beaver Valley:

Pop: 166

Households: 194

Wildfire: 4.68

Evacuation: 97

Over 75: 0

Disability: 37 percent

Washington Park:

Pop: 137

Households: 210

Wildfire: 4.68

Evacuation: 210

Over 75: 25 percent

Disability: 25 percent

Geronimo Estates:

Pop: 92

Households: 98

Wildfire: 4.58

Evacuation: 98

Over 75: 0

Disability: 13.5 percent


Pop: 2,408

Households: 3,163

Wildfire hazard: 4.22

Evacuation: 1,054

Over 75: 8.1 percent

Disability: 25 percent

Mobile home: 14 percent

Clay Springs:

Pop: 392

Households: 124

Alert: Yes

Wildfire potential: 4.11

Evacuation: 124

Over 75: 0

Disability: 4.6


Pop: 320

Households: 261

Wildfire hazard: 3.82

Evacuation: 65

Over 75: 5

Disability: 8.4

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(2) comments

Phil Mason

Figures don't lie, but a conclusion that does not include all the data can lead to a wrong conclusion. First, I want to stress that we must do more to reduce the off-chance of an out of control wildfire, however, there are many factors about Paradise that are simply not similar to Payson.

First of all, Paradise had a population of roughly twice the population of Payson on a smaller land area. Second, Paradise did not have the natural/man-made lakes and ponds that we are blessed with to provide huge . Third, Paradise did not have a high-desert natural fire breaks that we have.

Again, we should not become complacent but apply pressure on the state and federal bureaucrats who are supposed to manage the surrounding forests. Every voter must become active in calling, e-mailing, and sending letters/faxes to the three Corporation Commissioners who voted against the bio-mass projects.

The Rodeo-Chediski experience MUST be told and re-told with passion. The conflagration basically was stopped at the White Mountain Reservation because the native Americans had cleared out the underlying biomass including fallen trees, brush, etc. The environmental radicals have prevented that process for decades to the detriment of the forests, the wildlife and the surrounding populations. It is past time to implement policies that will benefit and protect.

Mike White

Let's start with developing lot cleanup codes and then enforcing them. Being in danger because your neighbor's lot is overgrown and/or filled with junk is not fair to responsible lot and home owners. In other areas I have lived in, the lot owners are given notice and warning by the FD to clean up the lots or pay for the town to do so when the owner doesn't. That much is fair.

Let's do that as Phase I, then let's see what next step is needed before we jump straight to WUI standards, which can and did scare off those of us who read them. We have spent thousands of dollars each year chopping down trees around our cabin in CA, and it is still never enough to satisfy the inspectors.

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