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.
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.
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/