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Spokane County road grading suspended because of dry heat

Among the inconveniences created by this summer’s hot weather is a lack of maintenance on gravel roads in Spokane County.

County officials said they can’t send out road crews to grade some 1,147 miles of gravel and dirt roads because they’re too dry and the fire danger from tinder-dry roadway shoulders is too great.

County Engineer Bob Brueggeman told county commissioners earlier this month to expect complaints from residents who haven’t seen a grader along their roads all summer.

Effective grading requires a moist roadbed that will allow graded material to fill holes and ruts and then become compacted into the roadway by traffic, he said.

Grader blades frequently send off sparks when they strike rocks, creating a serious risk of fire, he added.

Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter, county spokeswoman, said on Thursday that residents have to be patient. The lack of maintenance is not the county’s fault.

“We can’t just grade dust into the ruts,” she said. “We need moisture, and we are not getting it.”

Thunderstorms and showers this time of year typically don’t provide enough moisture to soak into unpaved roadways, she said. Those roads quickly dry out after the storms pass.

The road department has a strict policy covering roadway maintenance during periods of high fire danger: Except in emergencies, supervisors must approve any grading, mowing, cutting or preparation for crack sealing.

“This is a very sensitive issue and can leave the county open to liability. Please use extreme caution when determining which work absolutely NEEDS to be performed,” the policy states.

Vehicle and equipment operators are not allowed to decide whether to undertake such maintenance tasks.

If such risky work is being done, the policy requires that sufficient water be brought to wet down the site and provide a supply of water in case a fire starts accidentally. Even with sufficient water, windy conditions could shut that work down, the policy says.

“It cannot be emphasized enough that the supervisor needs to be confident in the decision to perform fire-sensitive activities during high fire danger times,” the policy says.

Brueggeman said the higher cost of applying water in order to grade roadways is too expensive and risky to undertake on any large scale.