In Harm’s Way: Arizona builds farther into forests

In Harm’s Way: Arizona builds farther into forests

08 December 2013

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USA — The Granite Mountain Hotshots were in a perilous position even before the winds shifted that late-June afternoon.

On one side, the 19 wildland firefighters confronted a lightning-caused blaze in dry, overgrown chaparral that was 10 feet tall in places and so thick it was impassable.

RELATED: Report: Arizona fire response riddled with issues

On the other side was a man-made threat. Set among the scrub oak and manzanita were the central Arizona communities of Yarnell, Glen Ilah and Peeples Valley, primed to burn after years of building into highly flammable brush without adequately addressing the risks.

Firefighters surveying the towns the night before the blaze erupted declared them “indefensible,” according to an Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health report on the fire released Wednesday. Yet they defended them.

Apparent in the aftermath of the deadly blaze is that Yarnell and other communities near wildlands have altered the wildfire equation, magnifying the dangers and multiplying the costs.

An Arizona Republic analysis found that despite warnings from fire and forestry experts, and nature itself, the state’s wild­lands are dangerously overgrown. Arizonans, meanwhile, have since 1990 built more than 230,000 homes and other structures in wildfire-prone areas, creating risks for themselves and the firefighters called upon to protect them.

State and local officials have done little to address the threats even as wildfires have claimed more than 4 million acres in Arizona in just over a decade and the cost of fighting and cleaning up after some blazes has ballooned beyond $100 million each.

Preventive efforts have failed to match the threat. Only a handful of communities require residents to create “defensible space” around their homes, and politicians are reluctant to impose rules that could be perceived as trampling property rights. At the same time, communities that allow unfettered wildland development do not bear the full cost of fighting fires or cleaning up the aftermath.

The result is that federal and state taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars fighting and recovering from Arizona wildfires, while setting aside a fraction of that amount to thin forests and protect communities from wildfire.

When communities grow into areas vulnerable to wildfire, firefighting becomes complex and chaotic. It requires evacuations and brings to bear political pressures for firefighters to protect property.

Remove communities from the wildfire equation, and the decision whether to fight a blaze becomes a simple question of land and forest management.

A shift in the wind is all it took to tilt the equation against the Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30.

Investigators piecing together the crew’s movements that day found the hotshots were assigned to establish an anchor point and cut a fire break through the tinder-dry chaparral “to keep the fire out of Yarnell and Peeples Valley.”

Wildland firefighters are taught to value their own lives above property. But firefighting culture also prizes sparing homes, and the decision whether property can be safely defended is a judgment call often made on the run.

Among the hotshots’ final communications — minutes before they were overtaken by 2,000-plus-degree flames driven by winds from a gathering storm — was a text message to family: “This fire is running at Yarnell!!!”

The blaze killed 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots and destroyed 127 homes in Yarnell, Glen Ilah and Peeples Valley. The residents were evacuated.

The hotshots’ lookout, Brendan McDonough, narrowly escaped the blaze, and 61 other firefighters in the area were exposed to unnecessary risks of “smoke inhalation, burns and death,” according to the state report released last week. The Industrial Commission of Arizona, in a unanimous vote, found state forestry officials “prioritized protection of non-defensible structures and pastureland over firefighter safety.” The commission levied $559,000 in fines and penalties, including $25,000 to be paid to each firefighter’s family or estate.

Some wildfire experts have drawn the uncomfortable conclusion that if Yarnell weren’t there, or had been better prepared to withstand a fire, the hotshots wouldn’t have been in the path of the flames. This, they say, isn’t second-guessing, but a poignant reminder of the danger inherent in building in fire-prone landscapes.

Megafires have over the past decade blackened unprecedented swaths of western wildlands and torched homes in historic numbers. With signs indicating the trend will continue, experts say policy makers must re-evaluate how to best protect communities as development continues in Arizona’s forests and chaparral — and into harm’s way.

Accelerated building

Arizona has built into its forests and chaparral at an accelerating pace in recent decades.

The Republic’sanalysis found the pace of development in wildfire-prone areas increased by 86 percent between the 1980s and the 2000s.

The Republic examined assessor records for Arizona counties outside its major desert population centers of Maricopa and Pima. The records, when plotted on a map, revealed when and where development occurred within the area experts call the “wildland-urban interface.” The analysis excluded La Paz and Santa Cruz counties, where complete data was unavailable or wildfire threat is minimal.

The wildland-urban interface, often called the WUI (woo-ee), encompasses areas where development abuts or mixes with forest, chaparral or grasslands.

For its analysis, The Republic used the University of Wisconsin SILVIS Lab’s widely accepted map of the WUI. It encompasses areas where development draws within 1½miles of wildland vegetation. The 1½-mile boundary reflects the distance burning material can be carried by winds during a wildfire.

State occupational safety investigators, noting Yarnell was surrounded with overgrown chaparral, called it “a classic example of the wildland urban interface (WUI) situation.”

But it’s not unique among wildland communities. Nearly 80 percent of all recorded development in the counties analyzed by The Republic occurred in these areas. The analysis shows since 1990 at least 234,393properties were built in or adjacent to fire-prone wildlands.

Yavapai County, where the Granite Mountain Hotshots died, has the largest share of development in wildfire-prone areas in the state. Ninety-six percent of developed parcelsin the county are vulnerable to wildfire.

Southeastern Arizona’s Graham County also has a large share of development, 93 percent, in areas where wildfire is a threat. Coconino County, home to Flagstaff, Williams and parts of Sedona, has 85 percent of its development in such areas. And Gila County, where forest towns stud the Mogollon Rim, places 74 percent of its development in fire-prone areas.

The nation overall has experienced a wildland building boom, with 120 million people now living in communities vulnerable to wildfire, nearly a fivefold increase since the 1960s, according to the Montana-based Headwaters Economics. That study used a narrower definition of forested wildland development than The Republic.

In Arizona, development in areas vulnerable to wildfire slowed dramatically during the recession as it did elsewhere, according to The Republic analysis. But as building returns, hundreds of thousands of fire-prone acres are available for development across the state.

Yavapai County, for example, has 118,674 vacant acres in fire-prone areas where homes, schools and businesses could be built, representing nearly a third of all county land in these areas.

Some of the land is chaparral, which can’t be thinned like evergreen foreststo diminish the firethreat.

Chaparral springs back quickly and burns out of control, usually every 15 to 30 years, said Wally Covington, director of Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute. Buffers can be cut into brush around homes, but the landscape of oily shrubs is inherently combustible.

“If you’re building in chaparral, it’s going to burn,” Covington said. “It’s going to burn fairly frequently and hot.

“The problem in chaparral is building in chaparral.”

Some of the land is ponderosa forest, where researchers say it’s typical for 1,100 trees to choke an acre that would have supported only 20 or 30 trees in the era before settlement.

If the forest were in its natural state, fire could spread across the ground every few years without touching a home. But Covington estimates 80 percent of northern Arizona’s forests are overgrown, the peril left by a nearly 100-year effort to banish fire and its natural thinning effect. Fuel for the next fire is all around.

Amy Johnson, a Pinetop real-estate agent and longtime resident of the White Mountains community, said home sales are coming back after dipping in 2011, perhaps due to that year’s 538,000-acre Wallow Fire, which burned 32 houses and a cabin.

“Everybody would love to back up to the national forest,” Johnson said of the surrounding Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. “We want people to come to the White Mountains. Yes, we’re surrounded by forest and we have fires, but we survive them.”

Thinning plan falters

In summer 2002 came an early sign that Arizona would face increasing costs and dangers protecting communities in wildfire-prone areas. The Rodeo-Chediski Fire blackened more than 468,000 acres, forced the evacuation of 30,000 people and torched 481 structures.

But policy makers have done little since then to make forests healthier and ensure the safety of wildland-community residents and the firefighters called on to protect them. A federal effort to thin a million acres in the national forests has sputtered through its early stages, with the first chosen contractor bowing out after the business plan to finance the work faltered.

In 2004, with the memory of Rodeo-Chediski still fresh, then-state Rep. Tom O’Halleran, R-Sedona, backed legislation to create a statewide wildland building code, with penalties for property owners who did not maintain a safety zone around their houses. Despite support from the Governor’s Forest Health Council, which was formed to study issues raised by the fire, the legislation flopped and has never resurfaced. Lawmakers said it smacked of government intrusion on property rights and personal responsibility, a tension that has defined that debate.

“It goes along with the remnants of our frontier culture. We have more of that than we might believe,” said Don Falk, a University of Arizona forest ecologist who chaired the Governor’s Forest Health Council. “It’s hard for people who want to place these constraints because there’s such a distrust of any centralized authority.”

Steve Gatewood, whose property south of Flagstaff is shaded by towering pines and crossed by a creek, has over the past 10 years removed 22 trees and installed a metal roof on his house to guard against fire. He preaches the importance of defensible space through his work with the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership but understands why some resist, even in a city surrounded by forest.

“We have people who like the thick, dark, green forest: the Black Forest in Germany,” he said. It’s hard to part with that and even harder to persuade people who resist regulations touching their property, he said.

Cities and towns can adopt their own wildland building codes. But only 10 jurisdictions statewide, including small fire districts, have passed a version of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code, which calls for tree- and brush-clearing along with safe roofing and siding, residential sprinklers and minimal overhangs.

Among them are Prescott and Flagstaff, but not the broader fire-prone counties, Yavapai and Coconino, they anchor.

Pima County has a wildland building code that applies only to Mount Lemmon, where the 2003 Aspen Fire ripped through forest and structures. But Bill Williams Mountain, above Williams, Dean Peak in Mohave County, and Mount Graham, above Safford, don’t.

In some cases, local laws have been counterproductive. When University of Arizona extension Forester Steve Campbell moved to Pinetop in the early 1990s, the town had an ordinance prohibiting property owners from cutting more than three trees and required a permit for all cutting. Only after Rodeo-Chediski did Pinetop-Lakeside reverse course by adopting an ordinance that encourages tree cutting.

At a workshop this summer on the dangers of building in fire-prone areas, local officials said they would suffer politically if they tried to impose restrictions on new homes.

“Thousands of dollars, it increases the cost,” Navajo County Supervisor Sylvia Allen said, “especially the sprinklers.

“It’s getting to the point where people feel so burdened.”

In his nine years as a Navajo County supervisor, Dave Tenney said the idea of a building code to protect forest towns like Show Low and Pinetop has never come up. Nor should it, he said.

“I personally don’t feel the problem is where people are building,” he said. “People have had homes in the middle of the forest for decades.”

The problem, he said, is the forests are choked with trees that carry fire easily. Thin the forest and the threat goes away.

Charlie Brown, a Pinedale resident who lost a home to Rodeo-Chediski, acknowledges living in the forest has risks, but so does anyplace else, he said.

“Right after we lost our house, The Arizona Republic quoted an ASU professor who said if you build in the WUI, expect to burn,” said Brown, who rebuilt using fire-resistant materials. “My response to him was ‘You live in the big city, you’re going to get robbed and raped.’ ”

Given the attitudes and political realities, efforts to reduce fire risks in wildland communities have largely been voluntary.

One afternoon in October in the gated Pinetop community of White Mountain Summer Homes, Mike Furrier nervously chuckled as he watched a forestry expert mark trees on his property for clearing.

The homeowners association encourages tree thinning on all of its 470 lots. But the thinning is optional and costs an average of $1,500 for the work.

“Gotta go to the store and buy some alcohol for my wife, I see,” Furrier joked as he saw how many trees would be removed.

The Furriers, who live in Tucson, have been coming to their cabin for 30 years. Part of the attraction was the privacy offered by the trees on their land. But after the neighborhood was evacuated as Rodeo-Chediski threatened, their perspective changed.

“It’s important to take care of the forest,” Joelee Furrier said. “I know it needs to be done.”

When the association sought stategrants for thinning work a couple of years ago, 110 owners signed up, said association President Glen Walker. Sixty backed out when they realized how many trees would be cut down. The association is contemplating mandatory thinning.

The Yarnell Hill Fire highlighted how effective such work can be. Sixty-three homes in the wildfire’s path had adequate defensible space and almost all weathered the blaze, according to an analysis by the Pacific Biodiversity Institute.

The problem is that voluntary efforts haven’t come close to addressing the problem. CoreLogic, a real-estate analytics company, estimated in an October report that 38,653 Arizona properties worth a combined $4.7 billion are at “high” or “very high” risk of wildfire damage. The report assessed the density of vegetation, terrain, construction materials and other factors.

The report cautioned that the risk won’t improve given the recent trend of megafires. “The number of homes exposed to the risk and the amount of damage realized each year will continue to increase,” the report states.

Some states have started aggressively addressing the risks. Oregon’s state forester is now authorized to contact landowners every five years for proof they are complying with hazard-reduction standards — and to charge up to $100,000 for fighting fires that break out there if they fail to comply within two years. Colorado’s governor is backing a proposal to require, among other things, defensible space and disclosure of wildfire hazards when property is sold.

Insurance companies have also responded to the risk.

Johnson, the Pinetop real-estate agent, was stunned when she ran into a new impediment to sales: costly or impossible-to-get insurance due to wildfire risk. A would-be buyer recently walked away from a sale in Pinetop-Lakeside because of wildfire-driven insurance costs, she said.

State Farm agents in 13 Western states, including Arizona, began a decade ago to report unsafe forest conditions in their communities. Spokeswoman Angela Thorpe said the company won’t renew policies unless homeowners clear wildfire hazards from their property. Nearly all comply, she said.

UA fire ecologist Falk sees a parallel between wildfire-prone areas and flood plains and barrier islands — places where development restrictions and an emphasis on individual responsibility are well established. It’s harder to map a “fireshed” than a watershed. But there are ways of predicting the probability of fire, and rising firefighting costs may force action as floods and hurricanes have in the past.

“It’s unavoidable,” Falk said. “You can’t just walk away from this situation anymore.”

The proponents of measures to protect communities from wildfires say it’s a “pay now or pay later” proposition, and later means taxpayers and insurers take the hit.

“We have got to turn that thinking around,” said Dave Nichols, a former Mesa firefighter who now manages regional government relations for the International Code Council. “Too often we see these codes put in place after the disaster.”

Flagstaff adopted its wildland building code in 2008 after a series of close calls.

In 2010, a fire that evacuated part of the city conveyed the message that thinning works. The Little America Hotel had thinned the forest around its property, and the fire immediately dropped from the tops of the trees to the ground when it reached that spot.

Then came the Schultz Fire later that year, which blistered 15,000 acres of mountainside above the exurban neighborhood of Doney Park. An intense fire like that consumes vegetation that otherwise would hold water, and it bakes soil to the point it repels rain. When monsoon rains arrived after the fire, a debris flow surged through homes, killing a 12-year-old girl.

Last year, roughly three-quarters of voters approved $10 million in bonds to thin the forest on federal lands above town.

A Northern Arizona University report put in stark terms the costs of prevention vs. reaction. At a cost of up to $1,000 to thin each burned acre before the Schultz Fire, the researchers calculated, it would have taken up to $15 million to stop a deadly catastrophe that ultimately cost $146 million.

Defending homes costly

Most wildfires are quickly extinguished. But the blazes that burn out of control and are most expensive to fight predominantly occur adjacent to or in wildland communities, according to a 2008 report by the code council.

Firefighters working in developed areas contend with power lines, residential streets and usually a stream of residents evacuating their homes, said Mark Brehl, Firewise manager for the city of Flagstaff. It’s harder to negotiate than cutting a fire break in wilderness, he said.

State occupational-safety investigators in their examination of the Yarnell Hill Fire chronicled dangers that can arise when firefighters are dispatched to defend property.

A crew of 31 was assigned to protect the Double Bar A Ranch, northwest of Yarnell, even though structures there were “non-defensible,” the report states. The firefighters remained at the ranch even when attempts to beat back the blaze from the air failed and a tennis court “designated as a safety zone was known to be too small for the approaching 40-foot-long flames.” Investigators concluded fire managers placed protection of the ranch above firefighters’ safety.

Defending private property from wildfires consumes between 50 and 95 percent of wildland-firefighting budgets nationwide, according to a 2006 U.S. Department of Agriculture audit report.

“It’s probably two or three times the cost of fighting a wildland fire,” said Dan Bailey, director of the code council’s Wildland Fire Program.

The costs have burdened agency budgets to the point there’s little money left for work to reduce the impact of the next big blaze.

During the 1980s, the federal firefighting budget was in the $200 million to $300 million range, only topping a half-billion dollars during the massive fires in Yellowstone National Park. In 2000, the bill exceeded $1 billion for the first time. Last year, federal land managers spent $1.9 billion fighting fires, $1.4 billion of which came from the Forest Service, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In what has become an almost annual exercise, the Forest Service this year again dipped into other funds, including those to thin forests and minimize fire risks, to come up with an extra $600 million to fight wildfires.

Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, said the agency has become a glorified firefighting service.

Bailey spent 30 years in the Forest Service before joining the code council.

“As you put all your forces (into) trying to protect people, lives and homes, you’re using all your resources,” leaving nothing for thinning overgrown forests, he said.

Arizona budgeted $4 million for firefighting this year, up from $3 million a year earlier. The state sets aside no money for wildfire prevention, although it gets federal dollars to distribute as grants.

Firefighting budgets, however, don’t give a full picture of the costs.

The Schultz Fire north of Flagstaff, for example, cost the U.S. Forest Service $9.4 million to battle. But a study by NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute put the total costs related to the 2010 blaze as much as 15 times higher.

When the burned area flooded, the Forest Service spent $5 million attempting to divert and then clean up the muck. The flood also damaged culverts, bridges and a U.S. highway, so the Federal Highway Administration was in for millions. So too were the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In all, direct government expenses for what was a relatively small wildfire totaled $59 million. That doesn’t include the loss of life, hit to property values, habitat destruction and cleanup costs, among others. NAU estimates the total price tag is between $133 million and $147 million.

The Yarnell Hill Fire, at 8,400 acres, also was a relatively small wildfire. The firefighting costs — $5.4 million with some bills outstanding — were covered by federal and state dollars. But the total costs won’t be known for years.

Public coffers will cover survivor benefits for the 19 hotshots, including $7 million in one-time payments and $802,600 a year in benefits, according to the Arizona Legislature’s budget office.

Prescott has said it can’t afford the estimated $24 million in lump-sum benefit payments to survivors of the 13 Granite Mountain hotshots who were part-time employees. Nor can the city afford the estimated $52 million cost of annual benefits over the survivors’ life span.

Hit to budget

Some experts believe that as long as federal and state governments pay the firefighting bills — a burden borne by all taxpayers, whether they live at the forest’s edge or in a Manhattan high-rise — local governments won’t take into account the risks of building in wildlands. After all, it’s local officials who approve development plans and building codes.

“The only way local government is going to have the authority and the political cover they need to make these decisions is to hit their budget,” said Rasker, of Headwaters Economics.

If local officials had to balance wildland firefighting with funding for parks, street repairs and other civic duties, they might reconsider what kind of development they allow in fire-prone areas, he said.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘Let’s stop subsidizing this and let communities deal with it,’ ” said Bailey.

The loss of 19 lives in the Yarnell Hill Fire has put an exclamation mark on who covers the costs and who faces the dangers. More and more, fire officials and those who study wildland fire say saving properties isn’t worth it if it leads firefighters into unprotected territory.

“The priority for wildland firefighting is public safety — the protection of human life, the structures and the natural resources,” Bailey said. But the pace of fires today leaves few options for protecting those resources from a raging fire.

Brehl said Flagstaff won’t put firefighters at risk to save homes, especially if homeowners haven’t made an effort to protect their house from wildfire.

“We won’t go in,” he said. “If we’re putting firefighters in extreme risk, just to save someone’s summer cabin, we’re not doing that.”

But the decision to not protect properties can be controversial.

Joe Kenmore’s wildfire crew played it safe when called to fight the Little Bear Fire in Ruidoso, N.M., last year.

Officials scrambled to evacuate homes along switchback forest roads, the Lincoln County emergency director said, but decided to retreat when foot-long embers began sailing past them. A ski area, though, was accessible and safely defensible.

“It comes back to something like Yarnell,” Kenmore said. “It was just dangerous to be in some of these canyons. There’s no tree or any building worth anybody’s life.”

Trail-ride outfitter Robert Runnels spits when he talks about it.

“They could’ve completely doused this fire,” Runnelssaid, motioning up the trail from his stables to the spot where lightning struck in a designated wilderness area, igniting the Little Bear Fire that blackened 43,000 acres. “Instead, they monitored it. … They continued to monitor it until it burned 250 houses.”

The fire burned slowly for five days in the backcountry woods. Then strong winds drove it at night across miles of forested homes below the wilderness. It skipped over Runnels’ horses but torched the lands that attract his customers.

No one was hurt, but residents lost 254 buildings, mostly homes. The fire, which cost $20 million to fight, also left a glaring scar in the breezy pine groves that keep the resort town full of Texans in summer. A consultant for New Mexico estimates total costs from Little Bear will approach $250 million.

A wilderness outfitter since 1981, and a Forest Service employee before that, Runnels said crews used to charge at fires and dig containment lines up against them, but now they back off and try to clear ­fuels from a distance.

Kenmore believes the fire was, in fact, too dangerous to confront directly in the early going, though firefighters were trying to contain it. The terrain was steep and the canopy unnaturally dense after a century of fire suppression, he said, making possible at any moment the kind of devastation the winds ultimately unleashed.

“We were just trying to stay ahead of it so nobody got hurt,” he said.

They succeeded in that goal, though property owners later complained.

“People who lost homes said, ‘Where were you guys?’ ” Kenmore said. “Well, we were trying to get there. You just couldn’t get in there that night.”

The lesson, he believes, is homeowners have to take more responsibility for their safety if they live in the woods. They need to cut trees, create safe zones around their property, and build with fire-safe materials and designs.

“You need defensible space,” he said.


Whatever decisions or conditions ultimately killed the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the foundation for danger was laid years ago. As Arizona towns and communities rose in and next to wildlands, so did the risks.

Falk, the UA fire ecologist, said property owners can no longer build in fire-prone areas and say it’s no one else’s business. When the fire comes, there’s no way of knowing whose life will be on the line, even if firefighters aren’t supposed to risk themselves for vacant property.

“These houses have people in them. That’s what they’re for,” Falk said. “By allowing these houses to be built, you’re setting up the inevitability that someday somebody’s going to be trapped by fire there. That’s not a choice that is fair for firefighters to be asked to make.

“That’s why the house shouldn’t be there in the first place.”

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