The first line of defense against fire within the built environment are codes for new construction.
In Navajo and Apache counties, a patchwork of residential building codes and enforcement exists. The state has adopted the International Code Council’s 2012 residential and fire codes, but not the 2018 code upgrades. The code doesn’t include special provisions for WUI areas.
Technically, the 2012 code is the law across the state, but many cities and towns use earlier codes for inspections. Pinetop-Lakeside and Show Low both use the 2006 residential code, but Navajo County uses the 2003 code. In Apache County, the county and Springerville use the 2015 code, but Eagar uses the 2012 code.
In areas outside of established fire districts, the county doesn’t have a fire marshal. The state fire marshal inspects large commercial structures, but not homes.
Building and fire inspectors use their judgment in code enforcement.
“There’s the intent of the law, the spirit of the law and the letter of the law, [there’s] a lot of leeway in enforcement, said Brian Russell, fire marshal for Timber Mesa Fire. “My philosophy is, I don’t want to stop progress, but I want to have safety,” Russell added.
What is WUI code?
Cities like Flagstaff and Prescott have also adopted a wildland-urban interface code. The WUI code grew out of testing on how fire spreads from trees to buildings and vice-versa.
California has adopted WUI statewide through the CAL Fire agency on lands under their jurisdiction — usually open public lands adjacent to developments. Cities and towns may adopt and enforce their own WUI code. But Arizona does not have any statewide regulation for WUI.
“It’s kind of a gap in this state. There isn’t a standard, state-applicable code, and yet we have these devastating wildfires,” said Pinetop Fire Chief Jim Morgan.
WUI codes defines such things as roofing and siding in fire-prone areas and creation of “survivable space” through the removal of trees, brush, firewood piles and other things. Survivable space can save homes and lives — while protecting firefighters.
County and city governments can adopt all or part of the WUI code. No community in the White Mountains has adopted the WUI code or any portions of it.
Pinetop-Lakeside adopted a Forest Health and Fire Protection code after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. The code requires residents to modify the shrubs and trees around their homes to create a survivable space similar to the WUI standards, but the town doesn’t actually enforce the code.
Firewise is a voluntary program that helps homeowners evaluate and reduce wildfire hazards. Research shows Firewise communities withstand wildfire far better.
Despite four devastating wildfires in recent years, only a handful of neighborhoods have gained Firewise certification, all in Pinetop. Woodland Hills, another Pinetop development, has a Firewise application pending, as do communities in the Heber-Overgaard area.
A house burned in the Willow Fire
The Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management provides free training for fire personnel to conduct Firewise assessments. Pinetop, Timber Mesa, Heber, Concho and Pinedale/Clay Springs fire districts trained firefighters.
Frank Adams, fire chief for the Town of Eagar, said that in past years he organized two town hall meetings a year. He invited representatives of the county, State Forestry and other agencies.
“I thought we had it well-advertised, but nobody came,” he said. “We offer Firewise assessments, but not a whole lot of people take us up on that either.”
Loving our forests to death
“I’m not cutting a single tree, that’s what I bought the property for.”
That’s how Mary Springer of Navajo County Emergency Management paraphrases the sentiments of many mountain community homeowners. What they don’t realize is that what they see is not the natural condition of the forest. “A hundred years ago, the landscape looked pretty different,” Springer added.
Love of the deep woods and private property rights present the two biggest obstacles to implementing more restrictive local codes. “There are still people who will flatly refuse to do anything with their property, and that’s their right. It’s not a government issue,” said Apache County Chief Deputy Brannon Eagar, head of the emergency management division.
“I don’t think there is a county in the state that has a county WUI program. And it’s because of individual property owners’ rights,” he added.
Norris Dodd, of the Pinetop-Lakeside Town Council sees the issue a bit differently, and he sees a role for counties in protecting communities.
“We do need to put it in the context of public safety, that’s where the real priorities are. Funding the jail, funding the courts, those are must do’s ... but on the other hand, this is the survivability of the communities that are the real tax base of the county,” he said.
Spark by Pia Wyer
A proud sponsor of Catastrophe: A forest in flames