Fire code update

This photo shows a backfire set to control the spread of the Goodwin Fire, which forced the evacuation of several communities near Prescott this year.

After rejecting a comprehensive overhaul, the Payson Town Council this week took the first step toward adopting four piecemeal changes designed to make it a little bit harder for embers raining down from a fire to set newly built homes on fire.

The new provisions would apply only to new construction and would require screens on attic openings and metal strips on low points where roof lines come together. The changes would also ban shake shingle roofs.

What started as a comprehensive overhaul of the fire code several years ago has been slashed, chopped and burned to four building code amendments.

The fire department several years ago recommended the council adopt a Payson-adapted version of the International Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) building code, which studies show substantially reduces the chance the close approach of a wildfire like the Yarnell, the Dude or the Rodeo-Chediski will set much of the town on fire. The building code focused on things like roof materials, overhanging eaves and porches, building materials, sprinklers in high-risk areas and other changes.

The previous town council rejected the fire department modified version of the WUI code. The newly elected council asked a volunteer committee to recommend changes. The committee recommended changes in town codes to convince homeowners to clear brush and overhanging trees, but whittled the building code changes down to the four items adopted by the council this week.

The council rejected the recommendations on vegetation changes, but agreed to separately consider the remaining building code changes.

There is no mention of vegetative management in the proposed changes. At a prior council meeting, councilors said they would rather let residents have the freedom to keep their yards the way want then impose rules that would require them to clean them up if they are choked with trees and brush.

The only changes, therefore, that made it through impact new roof construction.

The four changes include covering ventilation openings with 1/16-inch corrosion resistant mesh; limiting the space between the roof covering and roof decking to keep flames or embers from entering; requiring the valley of a roof to be lined with metal 24 inches wide and barring wood shake shingles.

Vice Mayor Fred Carpenter, a proponent of Firewise, said he wished the council would have passed the vegetative management part of the code as well, but hoped the council would support these minimal code changes.

There were no public comments during the first public hearing of the code change. The council will hold a second public hearing and vote on the code changes likely at the next council meeting.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the value of WUI building codes as well as Firewise brush clearing in preventing wildfires from causing widespread destruction of forested communities like Payson.

One study focused on the 2007 Witch Creek Fire in Southern California, according to findings by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, published on the website Science Daily.

The 200,000-acre fire killed two people, injured 39 firefighters, consumed 1,600 structures, and inflicted $1.8 billion in damage. The research focused on 274 homes near Rancho Bernardo north of San Diego. The fire destroyed 74 homes and damaged another 16 in that subdivision. The researchers used a measurement of fire risk to determine if the WUI standards proved accurate in predicting which homes would burn.

The researchers found that structures that ranked high on the WUI Hazard Scale suffered far more damage. Moreover, firefighters had twice as great a chance of saving structures with a low risk assessment rating as those without.

Studies after the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 firefighters in 2013 came to a similar conclusion. A study of satellite images found that most of the homes destroyed in Yarnell hadn’t cleared the brush from around their homes. The unincorporated community didn’t have a WUI building code and hadn’t even spent a grant to clear trees and brush from around the community. The 19 firefighters died trying to get through brush that hadn’t burned in 50 years so they could reach the outskirts of the community and protect it from the wildfire.

The fire destroyed half the buildings in town, including most of those that hadn’t cleared a defensible space around the house.

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