Fire Wise and Building Codes

More fun from the Roundup.

  • What are your thoughts on Firewise? Would you support a Firewise ordinance? If yes, what would the ordinance include? If no, why not?

I have been involved in the rebuilding process of numerous wildfires.  The most striking thing in burn areas is the seemingly random nature of the losses.  One home in an entire block will be destroyed, or one home left standing for no apparent reason.  In 2003 I spent my time between the Cedar Fire in San Diego and the Old Fire in San Bernardino.  Oftentimes, simply by looking at an area, such as the Cedar Fire, you can easily see the increased fire risk.  Other times, such as the Old Fire in San Bernardino, the risk would appear much lower.  The San Bernardino fire in that regard was most memorable.  An urban area with “tract home” developments and manicured lawns relatively far from forest or  brush sources.  The challenge in both fires was not the lack of defensible space, but the conditions at the time of the fire.

One issue that cannot be addressed by the Town is the very real likelihood that a start will occur outside of Town limits.  The Sonoma / Napa / Calistoga fires of last year and the finding by Cal Fire that the local utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, was responsible for ignition of many of the starts, underscores the importance of preventing starts.  To that end, the recent forest closures were appropriate.  The Four Forest Restoration will provide greater security to Payson, surrounding local communities, and our water shed, than adoption of a local code.  That effort will ultimately provide Payson with the thinned buffer zones required.

The biggest challenge to be a “fire wise” community is not the adoption and enforcement of a new code, but the cartage and removal of the brush / undergrowth.  Many communities offer free cartage opportunities.  These same communities have routine street sweeping services.  Payson does not.  Recently the Roundup published an article about East Verde Park and the success of a “Fire Wise” effort in that community.  There was no code enforcement required, no fines issued, no government mandate.   That community effort is a good start.  Adoption and enforcement, presumably via fines and citations, of a “Fire wise” code will not magically reduce the fire risk of Payson.  With that understanding; I would not support any “Fire Wise” code adoption enforced in a punitive fashion.

  • What are your thoughts on the International Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) code? Would you support adopting the WUI code if it were adapted to Payson? If yes, what would the code include/exclude? If no, why not?

While the event of the 1961 Bel Air Fire was before my time, yearly in school through the third grade we would be subject to the resulting documentary “Design for Disaster.”  (If you want a flashback to the early 1970’s, complete with overly dramatic narration, the video can be found on YouTube.)  The basic lesson from the Bel Air fire was to “Design for Disaster.”   Generally speaking, if a structure is compliant with the ignition requirements found in the Wildland Urban Interface (W. U. I.) code, the likelihood of ignition is greatly reduced.

That principle, “Designing for Disaster” of the W. U. I. code found in “Building Construcion Regulations” should be strictly followed on NEW construcion.  There is no downside to requiring “ignition resistant” construction to include eaves, overhangs and subfloor areas.  The costs to comply during new construction are relatively nominal.   Existing structures could be “grandfathered” and enforced as with any potential life and safety code upgrade issue, such as electric code upgrades currently are, and “triggered” in events where more than 50% of the structure is damaged beyond repair or via permit threshold dollar amounts.  The balance of the W. U. I. code such as vegetation management, etc. is overlapping to the basic constructs of the “Fire Wise” effort.  Again, I would not support any “Fire Wise” code adoption enforced in a punitive fashion.


That pretty well sums it up.