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CHAPTER 21 - FACED WITH CATASTROPHE, FLAGSTAFF TOOK ACTION BY ALEXIS BECHMAN

Payson’s failure to adopt a comprehensive fire code that includes vegetation management offers a sobering cautionary tale.

Fire managers agree that doing nothing endangers the whole community.

“You really are playing a game when you don’t do anything and you don’t want to be playing that game,” said Skyler Lofgren, the wildland fire crew supervisor with the Flagstaff Fire Department.

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The Flagstaff community, meanwhile, demonstrated what can happen when community members adopt a code everyone can agree on.

How did Flagstaff adopt a comprehensive fire and vegetation code while Payson’s effort went down in flames?

Can you say “community buy-in”?

Two major wildfires threatened Flagstaff in 1996, the 8,100-acre Horseshoe Fire and the 16,680-acre Hochderffer Fire. These fires served as a wake-up call and things started to change with the creation of the Wildland Fire Management Program, which kicked off thinning projects and prescribed burns. The fire paradigm shifted, said Paul Summerfelt, the wildland fire management officer for the FFD.

“That created momentum that we have got to do something,” he said.

Are all trees good?

Before that, most people agreed all trees are good and all fires are bad.

That meant land managers didn’t use prescribed fires or thinning projects, resulting in a badly overgrown forest with thick tangles of brush below a heavy canopy.

With a change in thinking, crews started treating land in and around Flagstaff to reduce the threat of a destructive wildfire.

And it has worked.

In 2006, the Woody Fire started along Interstate 40 and gained momentum as it burned through an untreated stand of trees. Fire raced up the ladder fuels and created a crown fire, quickly jumping from tree to tree. Then the flames hit an area firefighters had treated. The fire dropped to the ground and crews stopped it.

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Even so, embers rained down on the town, causing spot fires. However, firefighters easily caught those fires thanks to all the fuel treatments in the town limits.

The same thing happened in 2010 with the 300-acre Hardy Fire. The fire forced evacuations and quickly gained ground. But when the flames hit a thinned area behind the Little America Hotel, the fire dropped back to the ground where firefighters snuffed it out.

Today, crews have removed more than 2,180 hazardous trees and thinned 12,300 acres. The eight Firewise communities within Flagstaff’s town limits cover a total of 5,000 homes. In addition, a community of 400 homes on the west side of Flagstaff is in the process of becoming Firewise, said Jerolyn Byrne, Firewise specialist with the FFD.

Before developers can build, Byrne meets with the contractor and owner and goes through a plan to get the yard cleaned up to meet the town’s vegetation management standards. Before she issues a certificate of occupancy, she comes back to check the work. Residents don’t balk at the requirement to Firewise their yards.

A change in mindset

But how did Flagstaff residents and community leaders have a change in mindset, especially when it came to adopting the 2006 Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) fire code?

Code changes are often divisive, Summerfelt said. However, Flagstaff had “the exact opposite experience” in adopting the International Fire Code and WUI code.”

Flagstaff’s WUI fire code and vegetation management program has already stopped several wildfires from burning through town. The city also passed a $10 million bond program to hasten thinning efforts after a study showed the floods that followed the Schultz Fire (below) would have done more than a billion dollars in damage to downtown if the fire had burned on a different portion of the mountain. Photo Alexis Bechman

Like Payson and Show Low, Flagstaff sits in the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pines. Recognizing the threat wildfires posed to Flagstaff, city leaders started several initiatives that laid the foundation for public support before the city council adopted the WUI code.

Community Development, for example, developed an administrative procedure requiring vegetation management on all properties prior to development. Flagstaff was the first community in Arizona to adopt the hazardous vegetation section of the Uniform Fire Code.

The city completed the Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 2004 and the fire department worked with citizens. They offered planning, forest treatments and debris disposal. They hired foresters and trained certified arborists.

“Collaboration and public education has been key to our success,” Summerfelt said.

The fire department was both a spokesperson for fire mitigation efforts and an active participant. Since 1996, Lofgren’s team has cleared 1,200 acres and conducted broadcast burns on another 200 acres.

In 2008, the council adopted the WUI code.

The move inspired almost no opposition, after a decade of education, Summerfelt said.

The council adopted the WUI code in conjunction with the 2006 International Fire Code, which replaced the Uniform Fire Code. But instead of just slapping the WUI adoption on a city agenda, fire officials for 18 months had “extensive outreach” with stakeholders, including contractors, Realtors, insurance agents, engineers, developers and residents. Their comments were incorporated into the local amendments. This approach has worked in other communities too where as trust developed, fear of a draconian fire code decreased.

Many builders and developers feared material costs would increase if they had to use hardier materials to help stop the spread of flames.

Codes impose little added cost

In fact, Firewise building materials proved largely cost-neutral, according to research.

Regarding vegetation management, Summerfelt decided against adopting the Firewise approach, which looks at zones around a home — with one standard for vegetation within 10 feet of a house and a different standard further back. Instead, Summerfelt suggested looking at turning the entire property into defensible space.

Summerfelt said the zone approach confuses homeowners and conflicts with the ecology of an area. Instead of focusing on individual trees, Firewise specialists look at the whole site.

Byrne took the Roundup to a wooded neighborhood to point out how she applies the code.

On a site southeast of town, crews were building a large home. In the front yard, workers had already cleaned up the property to meet the town’s vegetation code. Only a few shrubs remained amongst the well-spaced trees, giving the lot a park-like feel. In the corner closest to the street, the homeowners wanted to leave a clump of trees to screen the road. Because the rest of the site met the code, Byrne allowed the grove of trees to stay. The clump would not only provide privacy, but habitat for wildlife.

In Payson, residents resisted adoption of the fire code for fear it would give officials too much power to dictate use of their property.

Gaining the trust of residents

But Flagstaff has gained the trust of residents, which rely on the expertise of fire managers.

And residents have seen the fire department’s approach work. Every year, wildfires start within town limits, including some started by the campfires of transients in the forest. While these fires spread, firefighters can stop them thanks to all the fuel treatments.

Residents also understand they must live with the risk of wildfire — just as people in Florida have to expect hurricanes. Homes should be built with this threat in mind, said Payson Fire Chief David Staub, who has advocated for a vegetation management code and WUI adoption.

Staub said it just makes sense for Payson to adopt codes similar to what Flagstaff and Prescott have already done. All three communities sit in areas of extreme fire danger.

Moreover, Flagstaff still has plenty of trees, Staub said.

Lofgren said Flagstaff had a lot of near misses before it got serious about fire mitigation.

Residents were receptive to the changes because fire managers had taken the time to work with them and the fire department had not pushed the code.

“It was not a ‘hey you need to do this,’” he said. “It was more, help us so we can help you.”

Today, Lofgren’s team of 14 wildland firefighters clears brush and burns piles year-round. Last year, Coconino County signed an intergovernmental agreement with the city for prescribed fire operations on county-owned Rogers Lake natural area and Fort Tuthill County Park. It was the first time the FFD had done a broadcast burn on county property. Other burns will likely follow.

Lofgren said fire mitigation work does not eliminate wildfires, but can change their intensity.

“The goal in the wildland/urban interface must be to protect all values at risk,” Summerfelt wrote. “Those who are responsible to the public, who have a responsibility to act, must do so to reduce wildfire threat … to do anything less is to neglect our duty to act and to jeopardize the health and sustainability of our neighborhoods and communities.”

Spark by Pia Wyer

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