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CHAPTER 22 - WHITE MOUNTAINS: TERRIBLE RISK, LITTLE PREPARATION BY TRUDY BALCOM

The Rodeo-Chediski, the Wallow, the San Juan, the Cedar. The names of the major wildfires in the White Mountains region have been seared into our consciousness. A comprehensive risk assessment has shown communities in the White Mountains remain at high risk for an extreme catastrophic wildfire — with an estimated $1 billion price tag. At least a third of the population lives in the danger zone.

Clearly, it’s not a matter of if a wildfire will occur, but when. So what have we done to prepare?

Not much.

Pinetop Fire Chief Jim Morgan looks around at the overgrown forests in his community. Dry pine needles collect on rooftops, wooden porches and eaves wait for a spark, brush crowds up against houses, trees cluster in thickets.

“You see trees, I see matchsticks,” he said. If a major fire wiped out the $120 million in Pinetop property values on which the county, cities and fire districts depend “we’d all go bankrupt. The school would go bankrupt. The (local) government would cease to exist,” he said.

Despite the massive crown fires of recent years, local governments have made only minimal efforts to prepare for the wildfire that will someday approach from beyond our back fences.

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By contrast, communities like Flagstaff and Prescott have completely overhauled building codes, thinned overgrown lots, required homeowners to trim vegetation, raised bond issues, thinned thousands of acres and already fended off potentially disastrous fires.

None of the agencies in Gila, Navajo or Apache counties have adopted the kind of comprehensive wildland-urban interface (WUI) building codes. And only isolated communities have adopted Firewise practices.

A wide-ranging investigation by the Payson Roundup and the White Mountain Independent suggests the local political climate, lean county and municipal budgets, a lack of citizen awareness and a dangerous complacency have left White Mountain and Rim Country communities one lit match away from our next disaster.

Updated plan helps to identify the risk

Last year, nine communities in Navajo County updated a 2004 fire planning document to help firefighters and communities assess fire risk. The document is called The Updated Navajo and Apache County Sitgreaves Communities Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP).

The 98-page report uses data and fire modeling along with mapping of structures and vegetation densities to evaluate fire risk for Aripine, Clay Springs, Heber-Overgaard, Linden, Pinedale, Pinetop-Lakeside, Show Low and Vernon in the Sitgreaves National Forest.

The purpose of the $60,000, grant-funded study is to “Identify and expand where necessary, community wildfire protection and preparation on a regional level.”

The plan makes recommendations for wildfire prevention in wildland-urban interface areas.

The assessment identifies 244,352 acres surrounding the communities, 67 percent in the Sitgreaves National Forest and 31 percent privately owned.

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Thousands of acres in Pinetop-Lakeside and Show Low rank as moderate to high risk, according to the plan. That includes 125,000 acres at “moderate risk” — 58 percent of the total. Another 3,025 qualify as “high risk” — about 1 percent. The high-risk area runs from the Torreon Golf Club on the west through Pinetop-Lakeside.

$900 million in losses possible

The draft 2017 Navajo County Hazard Mitigation Plan recently submitted to FEMA says the Show Low area is “highly likely” to see a “catastrophic” fire. The plan estimates that upward of $900 million in property losses are possible. About 36 percent of the county’s population is exposed to a medium to high wildfire risk.

The 2017 draft Apache County Hazard Mitigation plan also documents these risks. A wildfire in WUI communities is rated as “likely,” but with “limited” severity. The plan shows that 2,339 people in Eagar live in high-risk areas; and 1,442 people in unincorporated areas are at moderate to very high risk of wildfire; and 279 people are at extreme risk. The Apache County plan does not document any estimated costs, but 1,812 homes are at moderately-high to extreme risk from wildfire. The largest number of building permits are being issued in the county’s WUI areas.

Plans such as the CWPP represent just the first step in a long process. The plan gives communities a framework to prioritize the daunting task of thinning forests. Completing the plan boosts efforts to win state and federal grants.

Several communities in Apache County also completed a Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 2004, but the 2011 Wallow Fire made that plan irrelevant. Apache County Grants Manager Malena Bazurto said she has applied unsuccessfully for grants to update the plan. As a result, the county doesn’t even have risk assessments for Alpine, Nutrioso, Greer, South Fork, Round Valley and other communities.

Building codes and wildland-urban interface

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

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

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