Ember Storm

Payson recognizes embers can rain down on homes a mile away from the flaming front of a wildfire, setting homes on fire all at once all over town. In 2020, the Payson Council passed a fuels adaptive ordinance that gives the town the ability to initiate legal action against an owner who fails to comply with the town's ordinance. An absentee resident will soon have legal action against them because of neighbor's complaints. 

Since Payson passed its fuel adaptive community plan, property owners have rushed to comply with the code.

To date, 120 homeowners have received grants to clear their properties of fuels that feed fire.

Kevin McCully, Payson fuels manager, said once all the grant properties are cleared, 170 acres of land within the town limits will be adapted to protect the town against wildfire. Studies show if homeowners remove brush at least six feet from their homes and clean off leaves and duff from rooftops, their homes stand a much better chance of surviving a wildfire.

The new code allows residents to file complaints against neighbors who pose a particular threat. So far, complaints have prompted Payson to contact 30 property owners. 27 of those immediately complied and cleaned up their property, while the town still wrestles with the best way to handle the other three.

Recently “one has reached out and we are working with them,” said Payson Fire Chief David Staub.

Unfortunately, Payson resident Gary Reed doesn’t live near one of those neighbors willing to comply with the code.

Reed and his fellow neighbors live near an unoccupied and overgrown property. For more than a year, as they watched the Bush Fire, then the Backbone Fire and now the recent Colorado fires wreak havoc burning acres of forest and hundreds of homes, Reed and his neighbors reached out to the fire department to see what could be done.

Nothing has worked, so in October Reed filed a complaint.

“The 2.98-acre lot has a deep ravine, full of brush and dead and downed trees that creates a classic wild-land ‘chimney effect’ if a fire were to get started in that area,” he wrote in an Oct. 14 email to Staub.

He asked Staub to keep him, “in the loop as to how this action is progressing” because “myself, my family and neighbors have a very strong interest in the mitigation of this hazard before the start of fire season, next year.”

But Reed didn’t hear anything for 60 days. So, he wrote to Staub again on Dec. 11.

“Please let me know where we stand with this process,” he asked.

It took until Jan. 3 of the new year for Staub and Reed to realize the piece of property was a private piece of property and not a town property. With town property, the fire department can quickly clear it if a complaint is filed. But Staub explained filing against a private property owner has more complications.

“The goal of the fire department from under direction of the council is to use education as our first action item, then we will use enforcement,” wrote Staub. “To that end, some properties will require more time for compliance than others.”

But this wasn’t good enough for Reed.

“Gary Roberts, USDA Forest Service and the Payson Roundup have been warning us for years that it is not a matter of “if” but “when” a forest fire will occur in our area, sending embers into our town to start in-town, spot fires,” wrote Reed in reply.

He then said it was “just plain stupid, irresponsible and unforgivable” to “wait until a catastrophe happens and mopping up what’s left afterwards … especially when we have the ordinances in place to help prevent such a catastrophe and have seen what has happened elsewhere with similar conditions.”

Reed then reported on conversations he’s had with McCully for the past year and a half about this property.

“He has told me that he sent them letters months ago informing them about the problem with no acknowledgment or response,” said Reed. “I think the time for educating them is past.”

Reed then quoted the consequences of violating the town code, which states the town may remove the fire danger once it can prove it attempted to reach the owner about their responsibility to clean up the property.

“Knowing what I have heard about you, I believe and want to believe you are doing your best to get this situation corrected under whatever constraints that the Town of Payson has put upon you,” he wrote.

Staub understands Reed and his neighbors’ concerns about the slowness of the process.

“Nobody would like us to write a citation (while) Mr. Reed would like to hurry up and get this done,” he said. “The other side of this is, if we go to court, we want to be successful … but that is not quick either.”

Staub is grateful only two homeowners out of hundreds have proved difficult.

“Most people want to comply, they just don’t know they are out of compliance,” he said.

In the afterglow of the 2020 Bush Fire, the Payson Town Council passed its Fire Adaptive Community Plan.

Now the town will use legal action against an absentee owner to keep neighbors safe.

Staub assured Reed in a Jan. 4 email that the town will now seek legal action, but “it is inappropriate for us to disclose any pending legal actions.”

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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(1) comment

Mike White

Is there a process in place for when a remote property owner doesn't keep his contact info up to date? One would think the Town could clean up the property after going through the process and then attach the costs and the fine as a lien on the property.

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