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Photo courtesy of Greg Pyros  

Bethany De Alva and her sons Levi and Riley make the most of some chocolate ice cream at the annual White Mountain Sheriff’s Posse Barbeque held Aug. 10.

White Mountains face greater fire risk than Paradise, California

WHITE MOUNTAINS — Someone must have screwed up in Paradise.

That’s what you’re thinking: Someone made a tragic mistake.

That’s why 85 people died when a wildfire swept over the California community last year, consuming 19,000 buildings and wiping out the whole community.

They must have been living in a thicket of trees, without buffer zones or a fire-adapted building codes. They must have failed to set up an emergency evacuation and alert plan to give people time to escape the flames. They must have not taken the risk of fire seriously.

Not like us. We’re ready.

No. We’re not.

Almost every single forested community in the White Mountains and Rim Country faces a much greater fire danger and higher risk of mass casualties than Paradise, California, before the Camp Fire demonstrated how tragically unprepared they were for the holocaust.

That conclusion emerges from a landmark study “Ahead of the Fire,” by the Arizona Republic and other USA Today newspapers, which rated the fire danger facing 5,000 western communities. Some 525 face a greater danger than Paradise – including almost every major community in the White Mountains.

The project compared 5,000 communities to Paradise when it came to the key ingredients of that tragedy. The study found the death toll was directly related to the number of older residents, the number of residents with disabilities, the adequacy of evacuation routes and the number of mobile homes in the community.

Paradise had a risk rating of 3.8 on a 5-point scale.

In the White Mountains, virtually every forested community faces a danger much greater than Paradise. The communities in the pinyon-juniper chaparral zone generally faced a danger a bit lower than Paradise, including Snowflake and Taylor. The communities facing the greatest danger include Show Low (4.2), Pinetop/Lakeside (4.4), White Mountain Lake (4.0), Pinetop County Club (4.4), North Fork (4.7), Whiteriver (4.1), Fort Apache (4.0), Seven Mile (4.0), East Fork (4.1) and Vernon (4.2). Linden scored 3.9, the lowest of the forested communities.

White Mountains fire risk map

In Rim Country, Payson scored 4.4.

That score simply measures the potential danger that a megafire will consume those communities. In addition, many of those communities also have a much higher risk of mass casualties than Paradise based on the number of elderly and disabled residents, the presence of mobile homes or a limit on evacuation routes.

Paradise did have an alert system – like most communities in the White Mountains. But like many communities here, the alert system has never faced such a test. In Paradise, the flames roared into town before officials could decide whether to issue an alert. However, many – if not most – of the 5,000 rural communities in the west have no alert system at all, the study concluded.

And it gets worse.

The study didn’t look at two critical measure of fire preparedness – adoption of a fire-adapted building code and a Firewise brush-clearing ordinance.

A Wildlands Urban Interface (WUI) building code mostly covers new construction and requires practices that reduce the chances embers from a nearby fire will set scores of homes on fire at once. A WUI code requires fire-resistant building materials, fire-proof eaves, enclosed porches and decks, fire-resistant roofing – all to prevent houses from catching fire easily when bombarded by embers.

A Firewise brush-clearing code focuses on keeping brush and trees away from the sides of a house and branches from overhanging the roof so a groundfire won’t quickly catch a house on fire.

A WUI code and a Firewise ordinance reduce the chances that a rain of embers from a nearby wildfire will ignite houses while the fire front is still a mile away. If one house catches fire, it dramatically increases the chance neighboring houses will also burn. Paradise underscored that lesson, with scores of houses catching fire under the rain of embers and then spreading the fire through town faster than many people could flee – especially the elderly and the disabled.

Flagstaff and Prescott have WUI codes and tough Firewise ordinances, adopted after tragic fires in those communities. But not a single community in the White Mountains or Rim Country have such codes – not Payson, nor Show Low, nor Pinetop, nor Heber, nor Young – not one.

Communities with a lot of older and disabled residents face a special hazard. The study of the deaths in Paradise showed the elderly and disabled accounted for a shockingly high percentage of those who died. They faced much greater problems with transportation, mobility and the speed with which they could react. As a result, many tried to ride out the fire with tragic results.

Fire Risk Data by Community

You can look at maps and charts of all 5,000 western communities rated at the AZCentral website:https://www.azcentral.com/in-depth/news/local/arizona-wildfires/2019/07/22/wildfire-risks-more-than-500-spots-have-greater-hazard-than-paradise/1434502001/

APS bringing broadband to Navajo County

HOLBROOK — Arizona Public Service officials this week at a meeting of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors unveiled plans to string a high-speed, high-capacity broadband fiber-optic cable on its transmission lines all the way from Phoenix to the Cholla Power Plant.

APS says it will string the trunk line on existing transmission towers from Phoenix to Payson within the year and continue the line on up to Cholla within two years. The utility company is undertaking the project mostly to provide its own internet system for communications and control. But while they’re stringing line from one giant transmission tower to the next by helicopter, they’ll put enough fiber atop those towers to serve the needs of the entire region.

In theory, the line will make possible reliable, high-speed internet to rival anything in the country. The line could not only prevent the frequent, sometimes dangerous outages caused by the existing, one-line system, but open the door to an expansion of the internet-dependent economy expected to become increasingly dominant.

County Supervisor Steve Williams said “this is a significant project for the region. I’m excited about the possibilities that will come for economic growth and the quality of life for businesses and people here, so I really appreciate APS for its partnership on this. It’s a big deal.”

“We’ve done regional economic studies,” said Navajo County Supervisors Board Chairman Dawnafe Whitesinger, “and they all talk about the need for broadband to be able to market to large businesses and organizations that already exist within the county, like schools and hospitals.”

County Manager Glenn Kephart commented, “this is very exciting. We’ve been hoping for and working to get this for years.”

Ultimately, the system could enable places like Show Low and Pinetop to attract internet-dependent businesses, eager to get out of the expensive, congested urban centers, but still needing reliable, blazing fast internet. Moreover, schools and hospitals can benefit.

There’s just one catch.

No one will actually get a signal unless some other company – like Sparklight (formerly Cable One), Century Link, Sudden Link, Verizon, T-Mobile or any number of other providers prove willing to pay a monthly fee for access.

“So you create the trunk line – or the freeway,” said Kephart, “what happens next as far as your expectations of how this will benefit our actual business community, if you’re not actually connecting those businesses to the trunk line?”

“The best I can explain it,” said Neil Traver, APS division manger, “is that we’re going to build the Interstate – which has the capacity to backhaul everything back to Phoenix where the internet lives in big server farms. We’re building the main infrastructure – so Verizon, Sparklight, the hospitals – anyone who wants to use the space we’re building – can lease the excess capacity we don’t need and they can use for dedicated lines.”

APS will essentially pay for the “middle mile” of the internet, but other companies will have to pay for the “last mile,” which brings the signal to homes and businesses.

He said the line will reach Payson next year. Sparklight has struck a deal with the MHA Foundation in Payson to connect its existing line in Heber to Payson, hopefully by the end of the year. If Sparklight agrees to connect to the APS line from Phoenix once it reaches Payson, most of the White Mountains would have a redundant internet connection. That means a cut anywhere along the existing line that comes from Phoenix by another, roundabout route would no longer sever service to the region. The higher-capacity APS line would also provide plenty of bandwidth for growth without sacrificing speed.

“So the City of Show Low and Forest Lakes will have the back connection all the way to Phoenix,” said Traver. “This will enable the next leap, which is into the 5G cell phone world. Let’s say you guys want to make the connection at the Navajo County complex more reliable, you would need to work with whoever provides the service now and make sure that they’re connecting with APS when they get to Cholla – so you’re connected to that ring.”

APS IT Senior Manager Dominic Pagliuca said the line would likely have plenty of capacity to meet the needs of the region for the next 30 years or more.

Supervisor Lee Jack asked whether the new trunk line will improve connections on the sprawling Navajo or Hope reservations.

Pagliuca said the APS line won’t extend north of I-40. However, the substantial network of existing cable lines on both reservations could still connect to the APS.

“We have nothing north of I-40,” said, Pagliuca. “But we can probably connect our system to their system. Anything on the Navajo Reservation or the Hopi Reservation would be something different, but there’s quite a bit of fiber on the reservation.”

After the meeting, Pagliuca said the company hasn’t yet figured out what it might charge for access to its line for either cell phone companies or retail Internet providers like Sudden Link.

The APS announcement also adds another level of complexity to the federally funded E-Rate program, which provides high-speed, reliable Internet connections to libraries and schools.

Apache County has received millions in E-rate grants and has already improved connections for many rural schools. Presumably, the APS trunk line will increase speed and reliability – and perhaps E-rate will pay the cost of the connection.

Gila County was recently awarded millions of E-rate dollars to improve the connection to its schools and libraries. The grant was supposed to improve the connection to Phoenix to create redundancy, so the line won’t go down as a result of a single cut along the way. Presumably an APS-funded trunk line from Phoenix would make those E-rate dollars go much further.

Navajo County has so far lagged in getting E-rate grants, partly because a three-county consortium fell apart a year ago due to allegations of irregularities in the bidding process. Navajo County schools have appealed the denial of funding and missed the last cycle of funding.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Ries gets probation for domestic violence

HOLBROOK—The domestic violence case against prominent local chiropractor Kenly Ries has concluded. Ries pleaded guilty on to one count of attempted aggravated assault, a Class 5 felony, and one count of misdemeanor disorderly conduct on July 11 in the Navajo County Superior Court. He was sentenced on August 1.

On Oct. 31 of last year, Ries came home to his domestic partner and their four children after having been drinking. He was late and began arguing with the mother of his children. He throttled her by the neck and broke down a door and was subsequently arrested. A grand jury indicted him on seven alleged crimes including kidnapping (restraining someone) two counts of aggravated assault, four misdemeanors including simple assault and three counts of disorderly conduct. The law says that a person commits disorderly conduct if that person engages in “fighting, violent or serious disruptive behavior.”

In Arizona, a misdemeanor assault happens when someone inflicts minor injury on a person. However, if the assault includes “pressure on the throat or neck” which impedes a person’s breathing, it is a Class 4 felony carrying a maximum sentence of 3.75 years in prison. In Ries’ case, although he pleaded guilty to attempted aggravated assault, a Class 5 felony; the plea agreement stipulated that the judge would not yet accept that guilty plea and would not enter a judgment of guilt.

Instead, if Ries completes three years of probation with mandatory counseling and other terms, that charge will be dismissed and there will be no record of a felony conviction.

On Aug. 1, the courtroom of Judge Ralph Hatch was packed for the afternoon docket. It was noisy and hot. Ries appeared smartly dressed in a blue suit and waited for his case to be called with a couple presumed to be his parents. He appeared to expertly knead the back of the woman’s neck apparently to relieve her stress. The victim, stylishly dressed was also present with the victim’s advocate and the lead investigator on the case, Show Low Police Detective Phillip Uhall. Ries’ attorney Ronald Wood wore baggy jeans.

Once the judge had called the case, Prosecutor Joel Ruechel alerted the judge to the victim’s impact letter which she submitted to the probation department as she was instructed to do, but the letter didn’t make it into that department’s pre-sentence report; judges use the information in the report to arrive at an appropriate sentence. Ruechel handed the letter to the judge who read it silently on the bench. Hatch asked the victim if she wished to add anything. She declined, saying, “I think I’m good.” The prosecutor asked the court to follow the plea agreement.

Attorney Wood seemed full of venom. He claimed the letter probably wasn’t even written by the victim, but drafted to be used in the Ries’ upcoming family law case and contained “many secrets” relevant to the child custody issue. Inexplicably, he then took aim at The Independent, claiming that the newspaper “publishes his (Ries’) picture after every court date,” and sneering that the paper is “doing its best to avoid the facts.”

(Editor’s note: The Independent sent a reporter to Wood’s office in May inviting comment. After consulting with Wood the receptionist said they would have “no comment,” not even whether Wood was representing Ries at the proceeding before the Arizona Board of Chiropractic Examiners.)

Wood eventually asked the judge to follow the plea agreement. The victim decided to speak up after all, and said that Ries had not touched her before but that he had to “get rid of alcohol and drugs he used throughout the relationship” of 14 years. She mused that one day she hopes for “civility with co-parenting” but for now, she wanted no changes to the order of protection she received, which prohibits contact.

Then Ries spoke and almost stepped in it. After apologizing to the court and the victim, he remarked that although it takes two to make a relationship succeed, that it also “takes two to make a relationship fail.”

To that, Judge Hatch glanced at the documents before him and pointedly remarked to Ries that “It takes only one to screw it up.”

In the end, Hatch followed the plea agreement placing Ries on three years of supervised probation for the misdemeanor including terms of no contact with the victim (unless approved in writing by the court,) no alcohol consumption, domestic violence and anger management counseling, 120 hours of community service, one day in jail with credit for one day of time served, $274 fine due in one month, and $155 in various fees which Ries said he’d pay that day.

The parties made clear on the record, and the judge underscored, that if Ries violates his probation, he’ll end up with a felony conviction and face a maximum of 2.5 years in prison. The judge and the prosecutor wished him well.