State DNR review looks to close gaps
People in the Methow know all too well that wildfire doesn’t respect property boundaries. But which agency’s firefighters – if any – are responsible for protecting your property depends on a system of levies and assessments paid to the local fire district and the state.
Some parcels aren’t covered by any firefighting agency.
Most property owners with a house or other structure pay a levy to Okanogan County Fire District 6 (FD6). Those with unimproved land generally pay an assessment to the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR). But 784 parcels – about 9% – in the Methow Valley School District with houses or other buildings aren’t part of FD6, according to numbers from the Okanogan County Assessor’s Office.
The arrangement can be confusing, and it can have critical consequences for wildfire. It’s hard for the public to know where – and when – DNR rules apply, and when county rules apply, said Steve Harris, assistant manager for wildfire and forest practices for DNR’s Northeast Region.
If the county and DNR aren’t in lockstep with their burn bans, one property owner could legally burn, but his next-door neighbor couldn’t, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said.
The commissioners tried to clarify the situation when they set their burn ban last week. Not only did they impose the ban on the same day as DNR, but they made sure it included all private property in the county so that it would be stricter than DNR’s ban. Even when DNR imposes a burn ban on the valley floor, the agency may still allow burning at higher elevations where it’s not as dry.
DNR and local fire districts work together closely. While there may be holes or overlaps in the official fire protection, “We don’t take time to look up the parcel layer when we’re responding. We assume it’s our jurisdiction,” and sort it out later, Harris said.
While the fire district can theoretically decline to respond to a fire that’s not in the district, they always respond, Hover said. The district is, however, entitled to bill the homeowner, he said.
What is unimproved land?
DNR has been working to clarify what land it should protect. The agency is also updating fire-protection assessments, but it’s been more than a decade since DNR has done a full review.
Anyone with unimproved land – or land that could allow a fire to spread to forested land – should pay the forest-fire protection assessment to DNR. State law defines forestland as “any unimproved lands which have enough trees, standing or down, or flammable material, to constitute… a fire menace to life or property. Sagebrush and grass areas east of the summit of the Cascade mountains may be considered forestlands when such areas are adjacent to or intermingled with areas supporting tree growth.”
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) reviewed the definition and assessments at the direction of the Legislature. JLARC’s 2017 report found 20,000 parcels across the state (out of 2.8 million) where owners don’t pay DNR or a local fire district. JLARC also found more than 5,000 parcels of forestland that don’t pay.
JLARC recommended that DNR clarify the definition of forestland and consistently apply it statewide. They also recommended that DNR coordinate with county officials to administer the assessment.
In a recent study on wildfire protection, the state’s Wildland Fire Advisory Committee also looked at the issue. The committee found 358,000 acres of unprotected land across the state. The committee also recommended that the Legislature appropriate funds to bridge the gap between the assessments DNR collects and what it costs to provide fire protection. Okanogan County Commissioner Jim DeTro is a committee member.
DNR fire staff from all six regions provided their recommendations to Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz last year, but there has been no decision yet, said Nicki Henke, DNR’s forest fire protection assessment coordinator.
DNR has been working to define grasslands near land that would support tree growth, but it’s hard to clarify, Henke said. Does land “supporting tree growth” mean it could grow a tree, or that it used to have trees? she said.
DNR has also tried to come up with a formula for how far a fire could travel under extreme conditions. They evaluated everything from 1/2 mile to 10 miles, Henke said.
A natural break, like an orchard or a river, would inhibit fire spread on a “normal” day, Harris said. “We’re trying for consistency. How far is adjacent? In Okanogan County, a fire can burn a mile in 10 minutes,” he said. If someone is burning on the lawn and it spreads in the wind to unimproved property, DNR can recover costs, he said.
DNR recently resumed assessments after a hiatus imposed a decade ago because of concerns about how the process was being applied, Harris said. The evaluations have been streamlined. Assessors use an app that means they don’t need to visit each parcel, he said.
Even with computer models, the assessments are time-consuming. They start with a 1-acre grid and then overlay a national dataset of forested lands, Henke said.
Some areas, like 100% forest or a parking lot, are “no-brainers,” Henke said. What’s tricky are those in between, with trees or neighboring cropland. Anything that doesn’t match automatically gets further review, as do all parcels under 5 acres with a house, she said.
DNR has completed reviews of Lincoln, Pacific and Snohomish counties. Okanogan County is on the priority list and may be reviewed this year, Henke said.
The state has also been trying to clear up a situation in five counties – mainly in the Columbia Basin, where much land is irrigated cropland – that are basically no-man’s lands when it comes to fire protection, because no agency is responsible.
Many people pay DNR for only part of their acreage. For example, a 40-acre parcel could have a house on 2 acres, an orchard on 20, and 18 unimproved acres, Harris said.
Parcels up to 50 acres pay a flat rate of $17.50. Each additional acre is 27 cents. The assessment goes toward fire readiness and preparation, including training, hiring and equipment. It can’t be used for forest-health treatments, Harris said.
State law contains an archaic provision – once used by large timber companies – that requires a property owner to prove it can provide its own fire protection. But today, no one does that anymore. “DNR is cheap. The assessment doesn’t come close to covering the costs of fire protection,” Harris said.
Property owners in FD6 pay 83 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.
Okanogan County Fire District 6
Okanogan County Fire District 6 is the largest fire district in the county, covering more than 5,700 structures across 300 square miles from Gold Creek to Lost River.
Most of the upper valley, from Mazama to Winthrop, including the Chewuch and Bear Creek, are in the district. But many parcels aren’t in the district. That includes parcels between Lester Road and Balky Hill Road, on Highway 20 heading over the Loup, and on Finley Canyon. Parts of the Twisp River drainage and most of Texas Creek aren’t in the district, either. Many areas between Twisp and Carlton above the valley floor are also not in the district, according to Okanogan County Assessor Larry Gilman.
The town of Winthrop is in the district. Twisp isn’t in the district but contracts with FD6 for fire protection.
All parcels under 20 acres are automatically in the district, whether they have structures or not, Gilman said. Generally, when someone builds a house on a larger parcel, it’s added to the district.
If a group of property owners within “reasonable proximity” wants to join the fire district, at least 60% must petition the district for annexation. Several districts in the county have recently annexed new parcels, but it’s been a long time since FD6 had an annexation, FD6 Chief Cody Acord said.