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Memory of fire creates storm

THURSDAY, OCT. 11, 2007

Some birthdays you just don’t celebrate with candles.

Sixteen years ago this coming Tuesday, in the middle of the afternoon, residents of Spokane Valley’s Ponderosa neighborhood heard the roar of a late-season forest fire torching the trees for which their neighborhood is named. Before long, 14 houses were burning and Ponderosa neighbors were driving down the only two roads out of the neighborhood.

Ever since that event, which has become known as firestorm ‘91, residents here have pined for another road out of their neighborhood, while at the same time protesting just about every attempt to build more houses in this 1,300-home middle- to upper-class neighborhood in the Valley’s southwest corner. The problem was, no one seemed to share their concerns, at least not to the point of building another road out of the community or imposing a ban on new homes.

“We don’t have enough exits,” said Jan Cooperstein, who lives just a few blocks away from where homes burned in 1991. “There are too many houses on each exit in Ponderosa.”

Cooperstein and her neighbors have been bringing the evacuation argument to the forefront of every development proposed in Ponderosa over the last five years. They’ve gone as far as hiring their own traffic experts, one of whom testified recently that for every 600 homes, a subdivision needs at least four exits.

Last month someone officially concurred with Ponderosa’s concerns. A 45-home development on the neighborhood’s northwest end was rejected because, according to Spokane Valley Hearing Examiner Michael Dempsey, the development hampered the neighborhood’s ability to evacuate during wildfire or other disaster.

Pushing the decision in the neighborhood’s favor, was an evacuation study from the most unusual source, a private engineer working on a 180-home Ponderosa development up the road. That study, Dempsey concluded, indicated that Ponderosa neighbors couldn’t all get out in time if another disaster hit.

Considering the several million dollars of worth of development presently planned for the neighborhood, the decision was a potential crippler for builders. If Ponderosa’s exit roads couldn’t handle homes from one development, how could they handle another’s?

The answer, asserted land-use attorney Stacy Bjordahl, is that Dempsey’s decision last month is wrong. On behalf of developer Bryan Walker, Bjordahl is appealing Dempsey’s decision. She says the private traffic study at the root of the rejection was misinterpreted by the hearing examiner and the neighborhood.

“I would say that was the defining issue,” Bjordahl said of the evacuation study. “Essentially what (Dempsey) did is put on his traffic engineering hat to say, ‘I’m going to figure this out.’ “

Dempsey is not an engineer, Bjordahl said. Not only that, but there was no need for an evacuation study. Fire officials didn’t ask for one, nor did they say the project should be halted for evacuation concerns. In fact, officials with Spokane Valley Fire Department provided a list of requirements Walker’s project would have to meet to gain approval, all of which the developer intended to honor.

“There’s also no standard by which to measure an evacuation, nothing that says a thousand homes should be able to get out in two hours,” Bjordahl said.

In short, the traffic study at the heart of the argument, suggests that if everyone in Ponderosa was to get in their cars at the same time and drive to the exits, not all would make it out in half an hour.

The author of the study, engineer Todd Whipple, said Tuesday that the study is being taken out of context. What he was trying to determine with the study was what intersections in the neighborhood would become clogged if a large percentage of the neighborhood left at once. Not surprisingly, the intersections that failed were Schaffer and Dishman Mica roads, as well as Bowdish and Dishman Mica. Those are the two exits from the neighborhood. Both cross railroad tracks and both are controlled by stoplights, which Whipple signaled green for his Ponderosa study. A third intersection 44th Avenue and Schaffer Road also failed.

Beyond the failing intersections, the study isn’t real practical, Whipple said. It isn’t likely that every Ponderosa neighbor is going to jump in his car and head for the exits simultaneously, nor is it likely they would all need too. The cars in the study are also traveling with about 60 feet of space between each other. In reality, Whipple said, the cars would probably be crowding each other to get out and driving at least 27 mph. At that rate, the neighborhood would drain fairly quickly.

Bjordahl too, doesn’t think it’s practical to suggest that everyone on Ponderosa would need to evacuate in the case of a fire. Less than one percent of the neighborhood’s homes burned in 1991. There hasn’t been an urban forest fire in the neighborhood since.

“People, if they apply common sense, would they evacuate?” Bjordahl said. “Probably not. I think most people will say ‘I’m waiting.’ “

Cooperstein is buying into the attorney’s arguments. It wasn’t just the study that prompted the hearing examiner to deny Walker’s project, she said. The Spokane County Sheriff’s office, two fire districts serving the area, as well as the neighborhoods own fire expert all expressed concern about evacuating Ponderosa. She agrees with Whipple that his evacuation study is unrealistic, but she argues that it only proves an evacuation in real time, with everyone not rushing for their cars at once would be messier and even less effective.

“In the study everything is perfect, which is not what happens in an evacuation,” Cooperstein said. “They’ll be pedestrians on the road, animals, panic and smoke.”

This firestorm birthday is not likely to be marked with a present the neighborhood wants, which doesn’t mean efforts aren’t being made to improve evacuation of Ponderosa.

Diana Wilhite, Spokane Valley mayor, said she’s talked with property owners to the north of Ponderosa about building a road from the subdivision to 28th Avenue, which like Schaffer and Bowdish crosses the railroad tracks and drains onto Dishman Mica. The railroad tracks are a real sticking point, Wilhite said, because it’s nearly impossible to get permission to build a new road over them. If the city could build a road to 28th Avenue, Ponderosa would have its third exit, she said, but some of the land in question is in Spokane County, meaning another branch of government will have to get involved.

The firestorm of 1991 will likely be pushing 17 before the appeal on the Walker project is resolved.


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