By Isabelle Spohn
Following the events of this summer, why would our county now adopt a comprehensive plan that doesn’t even mention the words “wildfire” or “landslide” and withdraws the previous incorporation of Okanogan County’s 2013 Community Wildfire Protection Plan, agreed upon since 2006 by over 50 agencies, county departments and citizens?
Considering that the community remains stunned and overwhelmed with decisions, cleanup, deadlines and loss, a hearing date involving this issue on Dec. 22, during the Christmas season, is inconsiderate timing by the county commissioners. It is also hard to believe that absolutely no mention of our vulnerability to these events is made in the proposed comprehensive plan and that no public testimony will be allowed on this final version, written before these extraordinary events occurred.
Adoption of the comp plan has been delayed for years for far less-worthy reasons. Time and money have been spent recently on travel across the country to complain about wolf packs in other areas, collaboration with other counties and attorneys on return of federal lands to the states, and hiring of outside attorneys for $250 per man hour on lawsuits that could have been prevented. Why rush ahead with this adoption now?
In 2005, The American Planning Association (APA) published Planning for Wildfires, a report stimulated by increasingly destructive wildfires across the West, including a massive complex that raged through southern California in 2003, destroying 3,631 structures, injuring 246 people, killing 24, and later resulting in flooding that killed 16 people.
One significant finding of this report was that coordination of the various elements in counties’ comprehensive plans is “the missing link in many of the wildfire plans reviewed by APA. For example, land-use designations of 1 or 2 acres in areas prone to wildfires are certainly going to cause conflicts. Similarly, transportation routings that do not allow multiple access points into and out of a developing area or are inadequate in width are another.”
It is precisely this type of necessary coordination that the Community Wildfire Protection Plan has been promoting since 2006. It identified areas vulnerable to wildfire (particularly Alta Lake, Texas Creek, and Libby/Gold creeks — does this sound familiar?) and addressed the danger of related landslides. It identified mitigation measures that should be taken, with target dates for completion. Some originally assigned duties for county employees, departments, and cooperating agencies included development of community evacuation routes and alternate safety zones, signage along evacuation routes, and connecting dead-end roads when possible.
The county commissioners have been charged with the job of making sure the updated October 2013 Community Wildfire Protection Plan was incorporated into the comp plan; but instead, any reference to the Community Wildfire Protection Plan was removed. And despite the warnings from the APA against dense development in fire-prone areas, the final comprehensive plan supports an interim zoning map full of 1-acre minimum lot sizes in the lower Methow Valley and elsewhere.
These small lots, along with multi-family dwellings, are often allowed in remote areas along one-lane roads with no second exit route — and without adequate water for green space or fire suppression. Knowing now how fire can spread as rapidly up-valley as well as down-valley, we all probably realize that even the larger lots further north in the Methow are vulnerable, should fire spread rapidly from more densely zoned areas to the south.
If you are concerned about the lack of attention to fire in this comprehensive plan and its implementing interim zoning ordinance, write the county commissioners in care of Lanie Johns, firstname.lastname@example.org, by the afternoon of Dec. 19 with your thoughts. Since Commissioner Ray Campbell was involved with development of both the 2013 Community Wildfire Protection Plan and the comprehensive plan, you might ask him why incorporation of the Community Wildfire Protection Plan has been dropped.
Isabelle Spohn is a retired teacher and former fire lookout. She moved to the Methow Valley in 1978.