How can Spokane ensure its urban forests benefit from wildfire lessons in recent years?

click to enlarge Donna McArthur describes her concerns with trees that have grown in below her property. - SAMANTHA WOHLFEIL PHOTO
Samantha Wohlfeil photo
Donna McArthur describes her concerns with trees that have grown in below her property.

In July 2021, 86-year-old Donna McArthur got a cellphone alert to evacuate her home immediately. From her dining room overlooking Latah Valley, she could see smoke from the Andrus Fire, several miles to the south.

"It was too far to be hazardous to me, but it got me thinking, 'What would I do?'" McArthur says.

Not only did she prepare a "go bag" with some clothes and money in case she had to quickly get in the car, but she also later moved irreplaceable items from her home into storage for the remainder of the fire season.

"Pictures of my grandparents, all these things I could not replace, including pictures off the wall, I put them in storage," McArthur says. "It was a terrible job for me. I filled about four boxes, and my son-in-law helped me carry them. ... But I shouldn't have to do that. It's not my land causing me the problem."

Shortly after her husband of nearly 64 years died in early 2019, McArthur found herself noticing how thickly the pine trees had grown on the property down the hill from the home they built about 30 years ago, she says.

Compared to when they purchased their lot in the Grandview/Thorpe area, McArthur guessed there were now three to four times as many trees. Between climate change bringing record-breaking hot summers and the younger growth filling in between larger trees, she was worried how a fire might burn up the hill toward her home.

The undeveloped lots below her property border the train tracks, where she worries errant sparks could start a fire. She says people have also been found camping with fires along a trail there.

When she looked into it, she was reminded that the City of Spokane owns a 30-foot-wide right-of-way for "A Street" immediately next to her property on the hillside. The road was never built, and McArthur wanted the city to come in and trim the trees on its property so that hers wouldn't be at risk.

But after having Councilwoman Lori Kinnear and Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer out to the property to confirm that there was indeed a lot of potential fuel there, McArthur says she felt like no one had a good solution for her.

She was told she could cut the smallest trees down herself, but at her age that means paying someone, and her limited income makes that difficult. A deputy fire marshal who visited her home said there were no code violations to force other property owners to do anything unless problem trees were within 10 feet of her house. And private companies she invited to the property voiced concerns about hauling trimmed trees up or down the steep hill.

"It's been frustrating. I feel kind of like I'm pounding on the door and nobody's answering, and I'm angry," McArthur says. "I spent three years talking to everybody I could be referred to."

While McArthur's situation may be somewhat unique, the larger strategy of making the wildland-urban interface more resilient is one the city is working to adopt. As dense neighborhoods continue to butt up against thick stands of trees and other natural environments, the need to prepare grows.

Especially after seeing the destruction of places like Malden, Schaeffer tells the Inlander that the fire department has shifted priorities.

"There were a number of lessons that were learned and that made us reevaluate very quickly," Schaeffer says. "Our fire department's direction is based on a larger national cohesive strategy for how we as a nation prepare for and proactively prevent wildland-urban interface fires."

With a dedicated wildland staff member set to be hired in the fire department, recently adopted codes enabling the city to enforce more fire safety measures, and creative solutions like using goats to clear the underbrush, Spokane appears poised to expand its prevention efforts.

In some cases, when a property has dangerous "ladder fuels" such as small shrubs and brush that can catch larger trees on fire, the fire marshal could issue a code violation requiring a property owner to clear the property to specific distances.

Spokane Fire Marshal Lance Dahl says one issue is that his office has simply not had enough staff to enforce the code as it is.

That's changing this year, with the hiring of a wildland-urban interface employee (that position is still being recruited) who will help create safety plans for urban forest areas, improve relationships with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and ideally help apply for state and federal grants that can help the city and property owners treat their land, Dahl says.

"We're going to use that person to not only evaluate these wildland-urban interface areas, or parts of town with this type of fuel in them," Dahl says, "but also to get homeowners pointed in the right direction for DNR grants and how to modify their property and get monetary help."

Dahl's office is also getting five more deputies (adding to the five he already has) just to be able to meet national standards for conducting all kinds of inspections.

While McArthur was told there wasn't a code violation unless problem trees were closer to her home, she worries that the stand of highly flammable pines downhill from her property won't care about a 10-foot buffer.

Until last fall, Dahl says he didn't have the authority to force developers or communities to clean up their properties more significantly. But since the City Council has now adopted a full wildland-urban interface code, he says he'll be able to require not only forest health measures, but also things like fire-resistant construction materials in certain areas.

The code, he says, also can require modifying potential fuel sources 30 to 100 feet from a home, depending on the different risk level, from moderate to extreme hazards.

One of the most frustrating pieces of advice for McArthur was that she should hire a city-approved contractor, who would need a permit to remove larger trees (if needed) from the right-of-way.

Spokane city code requires that abutting property owners care for pruning and maintaining "street trees" even if the right-of-way those trees are in is "not actively used for public travel."

"We did give permission to [McArthur] to remove the small trees, shrubs and brush without needing a commercial arborist, and for anything bigger they need a permit with a licensed, certified arborist," explains Angel Spell, the city's assistant director of natural resources.

To McArthur, who works as an interior designer but mostly has a very limited income, that seemed insulting.

"I thought it was arrogant to say, 'Yes, you can do what we should do, but we want to control who you hire,'" McArthur says. "It just made me mad."

Kinnear sympathized at least in part, saying the city does have a duty to maintain its own properties in a safe way.

In recent years, the city has actually created incentives to grow the urban canopy and maintain ponderosa pine trees on new developments.

"But this is different," Kinnear says. "This sounds like the perfect circle of hell quite frankly."

While DNR offers some grant programs that can help fund projects to protect homes and livelihoods, the city does not reimburse for that type of tree-thinning work, Spell says.

However, in addition to hiring new fire staff and hoping to increase collaboration with DNR, the city is also trying some unique approaches to improve its own prevention work.

Spell says the city has used goats in recent years to clear out underbrush on public properties that are otherwise hard to reach and treat with human labor.

The city also collaborates with volunteer groups who can handle smaller trees and vegetation, and sometimes workers with Washington Conservation Corps are able to help deal with larger projects and more technical work, Spell says.

Still, in some areas, people like McArthur may be left wondering where the city's responsibility ends and theirs begins.

"I don't think I should be responsible for clearing however many trees as a gift to the city," McArthur says. "So I'm just kind of between a rock and a hard place right now." ♦

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...