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After A Bad Fire Season, Okanogan County Looks The Other Way On Land Use

Posted on May 9, 2016

Original story on Northwest Public Radio

Drive through this vast landscape of sagebrush and pine forests with Lorah Super, and she’ll point out the scars of wildfire all around you: scorched hillsides and razed homes from this summer’s Okanogan Complex fires, and gradual re-growth from burns in 2012 and 2014. “Last year, everything to the South, North, and East was on fire–this was a little bit of a donut hole in the Carlton Complex,” Super says, pointing out the window.

Super has lived in Okanogan County for fifteen years, and she works with local groups on planning and land use in the county. She says it’s hard to change the basic equation of wildfire here, because “The whole county is high-risk. And so, simply saying that you shouldn’t build near the forest isn’t adequate. We want to live here. There are gonna be people in the hills.”

What you can do, she says, is try to control how people build, by pushing for fire-resistant building materials and access roads that are safe for firefighters. To see just what impact this can have, we drive up a steep, winding dirt road where three firefighters died this summer when they veered off the road fleeing a blaze above them. “I guess you could just put yourself in a firefighter’s shoes trying to go up this road, or you think about two trucks trying to pass each other on a road like this,” Super says, as her station wagon squeezes past a van making its way down.

A wooden cross and a firefighter’s hardhat form a makeshift memorial in a gully beside the road. It’s impossible say whether a wider road could have averted this tragedy. But Super says the county is full of roads and housing developments that were not built with fires or firefighters in mind. “Developers came in and bought up these ranches, sold off these one and 2.5 acre parcels, and created this mess of access,” Super says. “They’re just little mazes–a number of them have no exit, and so firefighters are scared about going in there.”

In the aftermath of the Carlton Complex fire in 2014, Okanogan County was re-writing its planning and zoning documents. But not much changed where wildfire’s concerned: in much of the county, you can build five houses to the acre without a well that supplies enough water to put a fire out; and you can build houses in the middle of the woods without clearing the brush and dead trees around them.

County Commissioner Jim Detro says that is as it should be: “I’m not gonna tell you you should put a metal roof on your house, but it would make sense if you did. There are people that want their own little piece of property and they don’t want anyone to touch it or tell them how to do anything with it.”

That fiercely independent streak runs deep in politics here, along with the view that regulation is bad for economic growth. But economist Ray Rasker says that’s the wrong way to think of managing wildfire risk. “In the short term, it seems like that’s restricting development, but in the long term, what you actually see are homes that are safer, lower insurance costs,” Rasker says. “And in the end, you don’t see the county’s tax base going up in flames, because the ultimate goal is to build a subdivision that can withstand a wildfire.”

As it stands, Rasker says the incentives for development in areas prone to wildfire are out of whack. “When you read in the news that the federal agencies are spending up to $3 billion a year fighting fires, what they’re really spending money on is defending private property from fires. Another way to say that is that the federal taxpayer pays for the land use decisions of local government.”

As more and more people continue to flock to rural parts of the West, firefighting costs are projected to grow even more. “So you could look at it as a problem, or you could see it as an opportunity,” Rasker says: more than 80% of the land in the Wildland Urban interface—where private property meets public forest land—is still undeveloped.