Group says escape routes are blocked by several closures
By Marcy Stamper
The Okanogan Open Roads Coalition has asked Okanogan County to take immediate action to remove three locked gates that the group says block evacuation routes and could become fire traps.
The gates are on roads that have long been recognized and used as public roads, according to attorney Natalie Kuehler, who sent the request to Okanogan County Prosecuting Attorney Branden Platter on Friday (July 13) on behalf of the coalition. The coalition is a nonprofit dedicated to keeping backcountry roads open.
“This is of critical importance now, when this year’s wildfire season has begun and fire weather watches are already in effect. By allowing private landowners to lock established public escape routes, the County is eliminating what could be the only way out for many residents in the case of a life-threating wildfire,” wrote Kuehler.
“Indeed, because County maps designate those roads as public, the County risks actually luring members of the public — whether full-time residents or visitors — onto locked and gated roads that could become potential fire traps in the case of an emergency,” she wrote.
Kuehler pointed to an informal opinion from a state attorney general that she says requires the county to ensure the roads aren’t blocked. The June 2018 opinion, in response to questions from Platter about the proper procedure for updating the county’s road log, says the county must follow a formal process to close a county road or delete one from the log.
”Unless and until either vacation proceedings are completed or a court order declares the roads at issue to be unquestionably private, the roads retain their decades-long public status. And access to public roads cannot be curtailed by private landowners,” said Kuehler this week by text message.
The gates are on three connecting roads in the lower Methow Valley — French Creek Road; Texas Creek Road; and County Road 81, which goes to Leecher Mountain.
For ease of reference, Kuehler named the three gates in her letter. The Weddle gate is on French Creek Road.
The Gamble gate was installed about three years ago on Texas Creek Road, and was replaced with a reinforced gate last year, according to Lorah Super, an open roads coalition member.
The Leecher gate on Road 81 was also installed about three years ago, said Super. Okanogan County has been researching the history of Road 81 in an effort to clean up its road log.
Both Texas Creek and French Creek roads connect with Road 81, which would allow travelers to go north to Benson Creek or the South Summit on the Loup, or south to Brewster. “It’s an essential part of our escape route,” said Super.
Homes and public and private property on Texas Creek and French Creek burned in recent wildfires, including the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire. The roads have been closed periodically by mudslides and floods since the fire.
The letter asks the county to order the gates removed, not simply unlocked. Because “No Trespassing” signs have been affixed to the gates, it creates the impression that the public has no rightof entry onto county roads, Kuehler said in her letter.
Related court case
Part of French Creek Road is currently the subject of litigation in Okanogan County Superior Court. Adjacent property owners Gamble Land and Timber and Cascade Holdings Group assert that a 3-mile section of the road is only a private-access road and seek to have any claims of ownership cleared up through the quiet-title process.
Okanogan County, named as a defendant in the suit, initially called Gamble’s charges “vague and incomplete.” But the county later decided not to take a position and to abide by the court’s decision, according to Dave Gecas, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor.
The open roads coalition is fighting Gamble’s claim to the road.
Court documents filed by Gamble say that recent research shows that the county portion of both Texas Creek and French Creek roads terminates several miles before the Texas Creek gate (what Kuehler calls the Gamble gate) and before the gate on French Creek Road (the Weddle gate).
The struggle over ownership of French Creek Road goes back many years. In 2009, adjacent property owners Jim Weddle and Gebbers Farms petitioned the county to vacate part of the road near the Weddle gate. The county commissioners denied the request and ordered the property owners to remove the gate, in part because the road was an important escape route.
About two months later, the commissioners reversed their decision. The reversal came after the county’s attorney said he’d been contacted by lawyers for Weddle and Gebbers, who presented legal documents showing the county didn’t own the road beyond the gate.
Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson determined this March that more fact-finding is necessary to resolve the status of French Creek Road. A trial isn’t scheduled until early 2020, which adds to the urgency for opening the gates to preserve evacuation routes until the matter is resolved, said Super.
Platter did not have any comment on the coalition’s request as of press time.