Fire code overhaul could cut homeowners’ insurance costs

Fire code overhaul could cut homeowners’ insurance costs

01 February 2017

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USA —  The fire danger posed by the thick forest surrounding Payson has prompted the town to consider adopting a fire code that addresses vegetation management and the use of fire-resistant building materials.

For residents, the advantages are twofold, it will help firefighters protect their homes in the event of a wildfire and it may mean a discount in homeowner’s insurance.

As devastating wildfires continue to hit across the country, insurance companies are looking at ways to minimize their losses. Many are now requiring homeowners to Firewise their property. Firewise guidelines aim to reduce flammable vegetation around a home and prepare it to resist a fire. This includes removing flammable vegetation and replacing it with fire-resistant plants, spacing plants apart, clearing away dead leaves and needles and any branches overhanging a home. Read more about Firewise at

Last week, the Payson Town Council gave the go-ahead for town staff to prepare the documents needed for the town to adopt the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) fire code. In our coverage in Friday’s paper, we looked at some of the reasons the town wants to adopt the code.

While Payson has not seen a devastating wildfire, many of the communities in Arizona have and experts say it is not a question of if, but when Rim Country will see its next wildfire. A wildfire burning through brush that hadn’t burned in 50 years near Yarnell, trapped and killed 19 wildland firefighters trying to move through brush-choked areas to help defend the town. Much of Yarnell was destroyed in the fire, except for the handful of lots thinned and upgraded to meet Firewise standards.

When a fire hits, fire officials say it won’t be a massive flame front that overtakes the town, but embers from the fire will float, sometimes from a mile away, into town, landing on roofs and in trees and starting fires throughout town.

As firefighters go down streets trying to save homes, they’ll go to those they think they can save first, said Fire Chief David Staub. If a yard looks like it has been cleaned up but a neighbor’s is clogged with brush, firefighters will go to the clean yard first — since it provides a clear space from which they can safely fight the fire. If they pass a cul-de-sac and the yards in the front two homes are not cleaned up, they’ll pass it by, since venturing down an overgrown street could end up trapping them in a firestorm — which is how the Yarnell firefighters died.

While the town has promoted residents voluntarily adopting Firewise, the new WUI code will make it mandatory.

Elements of the plan include removing ground fuels, ladder fuels, dead trees and thinning live trees. It would set the limit to 80 healthy trees per acre and require homeowners to remove combustible materials under decks. Overgrown areas of the forest have more like 500-1,000 trees per acres.

The town has not decided how long homeowners will have to get their yards into compliance once the code is adopted, but it will likely be between three to five years.

Once a yard is cleaned up, Mayor Craig Swartwood said residents can keep it clean if they regularly prune, which often means just taking a pair of hand clippers out periodically and cleaning up bushes and trees.

In Chaparral Pines, the community has been working 10 years to Firewise properties and is a registered Firewise Community. Harry McFate, a member of the Payson FireWise Committee and chair of Chaparral Pine’s FireWise Committee, gave the council a brief overview of wildfires in Rim Country.

McFate said he saw the effects of the 1990 Dude Fire first hand as he had a home in a nearby community. The fire burned 44 square miles, killed six firefighters and destroyed 63 buildings. The U.S. Forest Service found after large fires like this that certain homes had survived. One characteristic found among these properties was that homeowners had done preventive maintenance. The concept of Firewise was born, simple ways homeowners could protect their homes, such as taking flammable items off their porches if a wildfire was nearby to cleaning their gutters.

Today, many insurance companies offer a discount for homeowners that Firewise, with USAA giving a 10 percent discount, he said.

Eric Santana, with State Farm Insurance, said five years ago State Farm declared it was not going to insure homes that were not Firewise in Payson as firefighters have a much higher chance of a saving a home that is Firewise.

This change came about after several large wildfires ripped through Arizona, costing insurance companies millions. In 2013, the Yarnell Hill Fire not only killed 19 firefighters, it destroyed 129 properties.

If the cost to replace those homes were spread out over premiums paid by residents, it would have been $40,000 per homeowner.

And it is easier than ever for insurance companies to see if a home is insurable, simply by pulling it up on Google Earth.

Tina Crabdree, with Crabdree Insurance, said insurers can see the slope of the property, access for a fire truck and the fuel load with these images and every home gets a wildfire hazard rating. For some insurers, homeowners pay more if their home has a higher rating.

Swartwood said he almost lost his insurance, but got his yard cleaned up. After it was done, he liked the look of his property better.

Homeowners interested in what a Firewise property looks like can see an example off North McLane Street, near the library, dog park and Rumsey Park.

The town, using grant funds, recently cleaned up town-owned land there so you can walk through it now and not get your legs scratched.

Toby Waugh, with the Payson Fire Department, said it may look a bit stark in some places, but like a haircut, it will quickly fill back in.

In fact, it usually grows in thicker and healthier after you cut it back, he said.

This leads to the importance of maintenance. Federal grants only cover the initial work to clean up a yard. They do not cover maintenance.

The council agreed it will need to discuss how much it will cost to implement the new code and how the town can help residents that are either physically or financially unable to clean up their yards if they adopt the WUI code.

Waugh said they could look at getting additional federal grants.

The council will likely discuss the WUI code in March.


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