Goal is to identify reliable evacuation alternatives
If a wildfire or dam spill closed main highways, could people in Okanogan County evacuate safely on unimproved gravel roads? How would people know which routes are open and dependable?
Identifying a network of reliable back roads is the No. 1 priority in a study of Okanogan County’s thousands of miles of gravel and primitive roads. By the end of June, the first phase of the study — a comprehensive map and list of all those roads — will be ready for review by the county’s transportation planning group.
The need for a dependable road network became unnervingly apparent during wildfires in 2014 and 2015, when main routes that serve the county were closed — including state highways 20 and 153. If another major road had been closed, people would have had to use back roads to get out, said Thera Black, a senior consultant and transportation planner with SCJ Alliance who’s heading up the research.
“We need a coordinated map to get people out — that was the motivating factor for OCOG,” said Black. OCOG, the Okanogan Council of Governments, which oversees the county’s transportation planning, has made a unified road network a regional priority.
“They really won me over with their rationale and enthusiasm. OCOG was really clear that they wanted to fill in the gaps and work collaboratively, instead of everyone creating the wheel for themselves,” said Black.
The gravel roads study will be a first not only for Okanogan County, but also for the western United States, said Black, who said she hadn’t found any comparable research.
Okanogan County residents and emergency managers are aware of risks from wildfires and mudslides. But other potential crises may be less well known.
For example, the anhydrous ammonia used in warehouses to keep fruit cool could become an explosive fireball in a disaster. Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams also pose a threat, according to a summary of OCOG’s May work session on the road study. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineer gives Pateros and Brewster just 22 minutes to evacuate all residents to high ground if Grand Coulee should fail.
SCJ is compiling information about road conditions, connections, maintenance, gates and culverts. The map will show roads regardless of whether they’re managed by the county, the state, the federal government, or the Colville Tribes.
But because all these land-management agencies have their own missions and needs, they’ve never had to coordinate with one another, said Black. “It’s as if, on the paved road network, cities and the county didn’t talk to each other. And roads may not actually connect on the ground,” she said.
People travel these roads for many reasons, including recreation, agriculture, and access to public lands. They also rely on them in emergencies. The database will enable researchers to create maps showing how all the roads connect and where there are gaps, either in management or on the ground, said Black.
From her interviews, Black has learned that some roads are never maintained, some cross public land but aren’t necessarily public, and others have been built but aren’t formally mapped.
OCOG expects the June report to provide an invaluable accounting of “what we do know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know,” said Josh Thomson, the Okanogan County engineer and OCOG project lead.
While each agency keeps records about roads closures and maintenance needs, there’s currently no mechanism for sharing this information, said Thomson. Ultimately, they want to build a system to keep that information up to date.
Such a system could enable the county to look at the network and find a detour if they knew a bridge was washed out, said Thomson. If Highway 20 over the Loup closes for repairs — as has occurred more than once — back roads could provide a detour, he said.
There are many terms for these roads, including “‘unimproved roads,” “gravel roads,” “dirt roads” and “primitive roads.” For now, OCOG is referring to them collectively as “back roads,” because some terms — such as primitive roads — have a precise legal definition.
Primitive roads are unpaved county roads used by fewer than 100 vehicles a day, said Thomson. By state law and court rulings, the county can’t post the familiar yellow warning signs about things like curves or washouts. But it would be permissible to create signed evacuation routes and to mark destinations and mileage, he said.
Because Okanogan County is so large, it’s not practical to print one huge map. Instead, the researchers are creating computerized maps so that someone can zoom in on a particular area for detail, said Black.
In phase 2 of the study, researchers will turn to the general public to ground-truth agency information and find out what they missed, said Black. Researchers will also ask the public about how they use the roads, drawing on local knowledge about road conditions, connections, and gates and other barriers. They hope to create a map so people can comment directly on areas they know well from hunting, fishing or camping, said Black.
Questions about ownership of and access to gravel roads in the county have come up repeatedly over the past two decades. In some instances, property owners have successfully petitioned the county to vacate (close) roads, generally to protect their land from trespassing and vandalism. These efforts have occasionally been challenged in court by people concerned that closing the roads would cut off access to public lands or to evacuation routes.
There is ongoing litigation over gates on French Creek and Texas Creek roads in the lower Methow Valley. Adjacent property owners say the gated section is a private access road. The Okanogan Open Roads Coalition is challenging that claim, saying the road has been used by the public for a century.
While the gravel roads study is not intended to weigh in on these matters, it could shed light on the issue at large. “There are consequences when roads are closed and vacated. If people can’t see those geospatially, they might close off the last remaining route for our region,” said Black.
The road network could also inform the county’s land-use planning. As growth spreads to remote areas, this information can help the county assess the cost of upgrading roads, said Thomson.
OCOG has some funding for phase 2 of the study, which will start in the new fiscal year in July, but will need additional money to complete the work. OCOG receives about $37,000 per year from the state, but not all of that can be put toward this study, said Thomson. OCOG is pursuing several grant opportunities.
The preliminary database and map will be presented to OCOG in July. As information is complete, it will be made available to the public on OCOG’s website at www.ocog.org.