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CHAPTER 24 - PRESCOTT RESPONDS TO DANGEROUS FIRES WITH BUILDING CODE OVERHAUL, EMBRACE OF FIREWISE BY ALEXIS BECHMAN

Prescott has been a leader in fire management, with the first Firewise certified community in the country and today more Firewise communities than anywhere else in the state.

Timber Ridge embraced Firewise in 2002 and now half of the Firewise communities in the state are in the Prescott area with 37 in Yavapai County.

Prescott also remains one of a few communities in the state that has adopted the wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire code, a set of building code and vegetation management standards to make both a home more apt to withstand a wildfire.

Give credit to the 2002 Indian Fire, which destroyed seven structures on the south side of town and spurred action by the town and community.

A tragic increase in deaths among wildland firefighters has prompted fire managers to take fewer chances in protecting unprepared forested communities like Show Low, Payson and other Arizona communities. Fire managers every year plead with such communities to adopt WUI fire codes and Firewise brush clearing efforts. Prescott did adopt a WUI code and created thinning crews — even a Hotshot crew. Tragically, 19 Prescott Hotshots died in the Yarnell Hill Fire trying to protect a completely unprepared community. The photo above shows the doomed crew heading to the fire line.
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“We got people’s attention since forest fires are not that common in populated areas,” said Don Devendorf, division chief and fire marshal for the Prescott Fire Department. Devendorf has worked for the PFD for 34 years. “People recognized that it came into town. So we struck while the iron was hot.”

The code includes language that impacts new homes in WUI areas, which includes half of the land in the city limits, Devendorf estimated.

New homes built in the WUI must use materials that will not easily catch fire. That includes a Class A roof, one-hour exterior walls and decking supports and 20-minute windows and doors. They also need enclosed soffits under eaves for ventilation, one-eighth inch mesh over ventilation openings and other standards to prevent sparks from wafting into attics. The town is working to require hardier decking material, which Devendorf said didn’t make it in the code due to an oversight.

Many studies show that a home built with these specifications has a better chance of surviving a wildfire. A famous photo from the devastating Laguna Fire in California shows a single home built to Firewise and WUI standards standing in a neighborhood of ashes — because all the neighbors ignored the WUI recommendations.

Devendorf said contractors used to Prescott standards, accept the code. Builders new to town sometimes question the requirements, but not generally after city officials explain what the code requires.

Overall, the more fire-resistant materials don’t cost more — except in luxury homes building with exposed beams. The requirement that exposed lumber have a minimum one-hour burn time can make the material more expensive, but Devendorf said people who can afford those high-end homes might not notice the cost difference.

For those who want to use wood siding, the code bars vegetation within 10 feet of the structure.

“There are trade offs in the code,” he said.

On the landscape side, Prescott has a three-zone approach.

Within 10 feet of a structure, homeowners must remove all native brush from under trees, space tree canopies 10 feet apart, and remove dead materials and combustible materials from under decks.

From 10-30 feet, homeowners must trim ladder fuels and tree limbs at least six feet from the ground, and space shrubs so a person can walk between them. From 30-150 feet, all ladder fuels must be pruned and dead materials removed.

Homeowners must maintain defensible space annually to the property line.

While the WUI does not apply to undeveloped lots, Devendorf said the city has a ordnance that requires property owners to cut or remove grass and weeds in excess of 12 inches high. Enforcement of the code is complaint-driven.

The vegetative management rules keep fire on the ground, instead of letting flames climb into treetops.

The city tries to work with homeowners on their landscape plan to take into account views and privacy.

In addition to adopting a WUI code, Prescott has also worked hard to develop Firewise communities with even stricter rules.

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The Prescott Area Wildland Urban Interface Commission meets the first Thursday of every month to discuss ways to reduce wildfire danger. Attendees include federal, state, county and city agency representatives along with volunteers, business owners and community leaders.

The group formed in 1990 and has collected $6 million in grants for fire mitigation.

Devendorf said the fire department is very active with the commission.

The PFD has a seven-person fuels crew (three full time and four temporary) that will chip brush a homeowner has removed.

They also work closely with the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service

When the FS or BLM clears brush from the south side of town, Prescott will often coordinate to clean up its “side of the fence,” thus creating a 200-foot buffer.

“It is a great partnership,” he said.

Spark by Pia Wyer

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