Payson, Arizona code fight highlights challenges for wildfire prone jurisdictions

Blog Post created by michelesteinberg Employee on Jul 31, 2017

Residents, local leaders and elected officials in Payson, Arizona, have been wrangling for years about whether and how to adopt local regulations that would require wildfire safety measures in new construction as well as rules around existing home and landscape maintenance to reduce wildfire ignition risks. With my career-long interest in sound land use planning and regulations for natural hazards safety, I have been watching and waiting to see where this struggle would end up. Payson's challenges are not very different from many jurisdictions in fire prone areas around the country and even in the state of Arizona. Yet, with just as much wildfire risk as its neighbors in Prescott and Flagstaff, the town of Payson has recently rejected regulatory changes that might have influenced future development toward increased safety and sensible maintenance measures that would allow local authorities to enforce on egregious nuisance properties that pose a threat to neighbors. 


Why? There are lots of reasons, and to me they are both extremely frustrating and completely understandable. Some of it has to do with scale and capacity. Flagstaff and Prescott are much larger jurisdictions, and their regulatory changes have more of a chance to be enforced with more personnel and resources. Some news sources note that Flagstaff and Prescott enacted wildfire regulations only after devastating and deadly fires - and it's been 27 years since Payson was the center of attention with the 1990 Dude Fire which took the lives of 6 firefighters. Other news reports have highlighted the often ugly back-and-forth among factions in town, with different sides hardening their stance. Some continue to insist that any such regulations are "draconian" and involve cutting every tree down. Others scoff that the law has no place in telling them to clean up their pine needles or sweep their decks, and insist that the regulations are "freedom-robbing". 


I found it ironic in early debates about strengthening safety rules that local officials pointed to the Firewise USA program as a reason NOT to do anything more about new construction or enforceable regulations for nuisance properties. Arizona and the general region around Payson have been strong leaders in adopting the voluntary, neighborhood based program. After all, if voluntary action works so well, why should the town council have to get involved in promoting the highly unpopular notion of safety rules for private property? Along with my NFPA colleagues and co-authors Lucian Deaton and Faith Berry, I addressed this exact question in the Arizona State Law Journal in 2016. 


In "Firewise: The Value of Voluntary Action and Standard Approaches to Reducing Wildfire Risk," we lay out the reasons why, even if programs like Firewise generate goodwill and progress through voluntary community engagement in wildfire risk reduction, regulation is still needed. The first important point is that Firewise USA engages existing communities already living with the wildfire threat in ongoing neighborhood action. A voluntary program to address existing structures and infrastructure has no power to control the siting, design, construction and landscaping of new homes and subdivisions. Local regulations do. 


So many of the news stories I read through years of coverage in outlets including the Payson Roundup seemed to catalog every excuse possible as to why a regulatory approach would not benefit the town. Sadly, many of them quoted individuals who perceived the model codes proposed as involving aggressive tree removal, or not valid because it referred to conditions not specific to Payson. During the ongoing debate, news articles started to refer to the possibility of "watered-down" codes and a citizen committee who would write new standards. As my colleagues and I wrote about NFPA standards, 

"(s)uch guidance is not simply guesswork about what concepts and practical steps will make homes and communities safer from wildfire. NFPA’s primary business is a consensus codes and standards process that uses volunteer expert committees and public input to develop minimum safety standards across a range of fire, electrical and related hazards. NFPA’s technical committees are comprised of individuals from diverse disciplines, including first responders, insurance professionals, special experts, manufacturers, industry leaders, enforcers, researchers, government officials, and independent contractors. These technical committees, under the guidance of NFPA staff, develop consensus standards that can be adopted as enforceable codes or ordinances."

The work, care and expense that NFPA puts into its process is also true of other standards-making organizations. Local jurisdictions have the power to amend standards to suit their needs, but re-writing standards based on limited experience and local concerns leads to a real danger of regulations that do not hold up to science-based minimum safety standards. To put it another way, a standard for new construction in wildfire-prone areas that calls for non-flammable roofs but doesn't address windows, siding, decks and vents will not serve to ensure that ignition-resistant homes will be built.


Along with voluntary programs like Firewise USA, local regulations can insure that residents are adhering to science-based standards to make changes to their homes and the landscape immediately surrounding their homes to reduce the risk of loss due to a wildfire event. Regulation can encourage residents who are not participating voluntarily to engage in Firewise efforts, thereby helping to make the community as a whole safer. This is due in part to many homes in WUI communities and neighborhoods being in close proximity to each other and having what is called an overlapping home ignition zone. This means the condition of one home can affect the survivability of the next door neighbor’s home. Many of the news stories I read referred to residents, often those engaged in Firewise or individual home risk reduction on their own property, who had become frustrated by the town's inability to enforce on neighboring property with levels of poor maintenance that constitute a serious hazard.


Sound regulation that has been institutionalized into a state’s or community’s way of doing business has the added benefit of addressing wildfire safety in design and development and making it easier for future buyers of real property to maintain that property in a relatively Firewise condition. Standardized approaches to safer development also serve to level the playing field for developers and builders and provide a measure of equity and fairness with regard to requirements for new construction. 


Perhaps the most frustrating - but understandable - refrain that I read over and over again during the last several years was concern about cost. Payson officials and residents feared that regulations would cost too much for residents, or drive developers away. I wonder if anyone asked about who bears the cost of failing to regulate in order to mitigate a well-known hazard. Wildfire safety regulations cost money, that's true. So does a major wildfire that destroys homes and businesses that were built without fire safety in mind.