A decade ago, the Flagstaff City Council approved a new addition to the city's regulations: the Wildland Urban Interface Code. Adopted in February 2008, the code was one more line of defense in the ongoing efforts to address the city’s key vulnerability: wildfire.
The language lays out requirements for using fire-resistant building materials, clearing fuels away from homes and designing neighborhoods for water and fire engine access.
Ten years later, the code has proven itself highly effective, according to city staff. The 2010 fire near Little America is one example among many of firefighters being able to corral potentially disastrous fires thanks to structures and neighborhoods that made themselves compliant with the code, said Paul Summerfelt, the city’s wildland fire management officer.
Flagstaff is still one of only a few cities in the state and the country that have such a code, said Jerolyn Byrne, the Wildland FireWise Specialist for the city of Flagstaff who works closely with the set of regulations. That's even as the fire season has gotten longer and the number of acres burned nationally by wildfire has ballooned, with an increase of nearly 1,200 percent in the Southwest alone since the early 1970s, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Here’s what else you need to know about Flagstaff's Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, Code:
WHAT DOES IT INCLUDE AND WHO DOES IT APPLY TO?
The code requires developments to have adequate water supply and pressure for firefighting efforts and to have streets that allow for fire engines to enter, turn around and exit. It has standards for fire-resistant building materials and vegetation management guidelines about thinning trees and reducing burnable fuels near a home, Byrne said.
It also gives “more teeth” to the city’s ability to impose fire restrictions, Byrne said.
The code applies to any buildings in Flagstaff constructed after March 2008, though it is less restrictively applied to properties in the core of the city that aren’t as close to the forest, she said.
HOW IS THE CODE ENFORCED?
Homeowners are responsible for keeping their properties up to code, Byrne said.
City response or enforcement actions are generally complaint-based or will be spurred if staff are working on broader wildfire mitigation in an area and notice a home isn’t compliant, Byrne said.
The code can also apply to homes built before 2008 if they are deemed to be an extreme public safety hazard with multiple violations, she said.
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The city initially tries to gain compliance through education before pursuing legal actions.
In newer neighborhoods with homeowners associations, the WUI code will often be included and enforced through the association’s covenants, conditions and restrictions, Byrne said.
While residents have generally done a good job in complying with the regulations, second homeowners seem to be slower to respond if their property needs cleaning up, she said.
Byrne said she’s in the process of reviewing the most recent version of the international WUI code, which Flagstaff amended to create its own version. The city is considering adopting that most recent international code, but first Byrne is looking for any elements that may need to be changed to improve it at the local level. That could include adopting higher standards for creating defensible space around structures and using more advanced fire-resistant building materials, she said.
DOES THE COUNTY HAVE A WILDLAND URBAN INTERFACE CODE?
Coconino County has not adopted a WUI code, but its draft subdivision ordinance requires a design that aligns with the national FireWise program, according to Jay Christelman, director of community development. That voluntary program includes elements like forest thinning, creating defensible space around a structure and cleaning away pine needles or other debris.
In areas where it’s needed, the county’s planning and zoning commission requires conditional use applications to include a plan for forest management and tree thinning, Christelman said in an email.
WHAT ABOUT FIREWISE?
The city’s mandatory WUI code complements the voluntary FireWise program that has been adopted by several local neighborhoods in and around Flagstaff, Byrne said.
In the case of both, there is power in numbers.
“We're not going to be completely fire safe. That is not a reality,” Byrne said. “But there are ways you can certainly reduce the possibility of wildfire impacting your home. And once you do it and your neighbors do it, it’s a domino effect, a collective protective action in the community."