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CHAPTER 20 - CAN WE SAVE OURSELVES? BY PETER ALESHIRE

Florida imposed hurricane building codes.

It didn’t stop hurricanes — but it dramatically reduces deaths and damage.

San Francisco imposed earthquake building standards.

It didn’t stop earthquakes — but it dramatically reduces deaths and damage.

But what happened when the Dude Fire burned through Ellison Creek and killed six firefighters? What happened when the Rodeo-Chediski Fire consumed 500,000 acres and hundreds of buildings? What did the counties and towns of Rim Country and the White Mountains do after the Yarnell Hill Fire consumed most of the buildings in the ill-prepared community — and killed 19 firefighters trying to protect them?

Big funeral.

Moving tributes.

But not much else.

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Today, this joint wildfire series by the staffs of the Payson Roundup and the White Mountain Independent examines whether the three counties and half a dozen cities in our coverage area have adopted the wildfire-adapted building codes and vegetation management regulations that study after study shows will dramatically reduce death and damage from the approach of a giant wildfire.

The shocking result?

Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Well, perhaps that’s too harsh.

Navajo and Apache counties snagged some grants that allowed them to assess danger and define the scope of the problem, as you’ll learn in Trudy Balcom’s disturbing examination of wildfire preparedness in the White Mountains. The study created dismaying maps and estimates that put the damage in the high-risk areas around Show Low at nearly $1 billion — with thousands of lives at risk.

Still, neither counties nor the towns in the path of disaster have adopted a wildland-urban interface (WUI) building code or mandatory Firewise thinning and brush management policies.

Reporters Alexis Bechman and Teresa McQuerrey found the same pattern in Rim Country.

Gila County set up water bladders to help helicopters refill and has sponsored wildfire fighting planning meetings — but hasn’t touched its building codes to implement the time-tested changes that can prevent a rain of embers from setting whole communities ablaze before the fire front ever reaches the front door.

Meanwhile, the Payson Fire Department spent the last two years in a failed attempt to convince the town council to adopt wildfire-adapted building codes. The effort failed miserably, producing only a few minor changes in building codes and a faltering effort to encourage voluntary Firewise brush clearing efforts.

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Neighboring Star Valley has done nothing at all.

The only bright spot remains the determined, small-scale effort by citizen groups in Pine, Strawberry, Chaparral Pines and a handful of communities in the White Mountains to sustain their own voluntary Firewise efforts, as documented by reporters Michele Nelson and Mike Leiby.

Maybe it’s just too hard to enlist public support for such an effort. Homeowners will never stand for brush clearing mandates. Developers will build in towns with weaker codes. Housing costs will soar. Citizens will rebel. That’s what officials in Rim Country and the White Mountains have said. So they cave in quickly when faced with criticism from even a handful of irate homeowners.

But then if it’s just too hard — how did Flagstaff enact a comprehensive WUI building code and field firefighter crews to thin brush throughout the community? After the Schultz Fire unleashed a lethal flood of debris — a study showed that the same fire could have wiped out downtown Flagstaff and caused a billion dollar flood on a different part of the mountain. That prompted voters to pass a $10 million bond to bolster thinning efforts in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.

Flagstaff’s proactive program has repeatedly stopped approaching wildfires while adding very little to the cost of a new home.

And if gaining community support is as difficult as officials in Payson and Show Low maintain — how did Prescott adopt the nation’s first WUI building code, pay for a brush thinning crew and foster Firewise programs in almost every neighborhood?

The Prescott program has yielded brilliant success — and tragedy. Prescott’s brush clearing firefighter crew continually upgraded their capabilities until they became the nation’s only municipal Hotshot wildland fire crew. The Granite Mountain Hotshots helped save Prescott from several approaching wildfires.

But that same crew died in a holocaust of flame as they tried to make their way through thick brush to a ranch that represented a safe haven cleared to Firewise standards.

As it turns out, researchers after the Yarnell Hill Fire found that some homeowners in Yarnell had cleared their properties according to Firewise standards. After the flames passed through, most of those homes remained standing — just like the ranch the Granite Mountain Hotshots failed to reach. But the Yarnell homes without defensible space were consumed by the flames.

In this special investigative report, we’ll look at how Flagstaff and Prescott protected their communities, with the strong support of the voters.

The research has made it perfectly clear: Relatively inexpensive changes in building codes and proper vegetation management can dramatically increase the odds of survival in forested communities facing the growing threat of wildfires.

It works with hurricanes.

It works with earthquakes.

It works with wildfires.

So we hope you’ll study the results of the months-long efforts by a dozen reporters. You can find copies of the three earlier installments in this series online, together with additional photos, maps and materials to go with today’s stories. We’ll finish our series later this month by looking at whether the Four Forest Restoration Initiative and the reinvention of the timber industry can reduce the danger.

The stories in today’s installment document the frightening danger and the shocking inaction. But they also can help homeowners — and voters — take action.

If we won’t act in the memory of the 19 Prescott firefighters who died trying to protect us, perhaps we will act to save some of those among the thousands of firefighters who still rush to save communities like ours, even though we’ve done almost nothing to save ourselves.

Spark by Pia Wyer

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