May 15, 2014 in Washington Voices

Solar World apartments near Fairchild may become firefighter training tool

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Spokane County used a state grant to buy the Solar World apartment complex to remove them from the Fairchild Air Force Base accident potential zone. The county is now offering the property to the Airway Heights Fire Department for a live fire training exercise.
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Nearly 100 vacant apartment units on the south side of Airway Heights could go up in flames if a proposal goes through to use them for a fire training exercise.

The Solar World apartment complex stands inside the Fairchild Air Force Base crash zone, about a mile from the base.

It was purchased by Spokane County last year through a $2.7 million grant that came from the office of Gov. Jay Inslee for the purpose of clearing civilian encroachment next to Fairchild.

All of the residents are now gone from the complex that covers several blocks near 18th Avenue and Lawson Street.

The county has arranged to have a contractor demolish the buildings. But first, officials are offering it to the Airway Heights Fire Department for a possible training exercise.

Don Malone, deputy fire chief for training in Airway Heights, said he is in the preliminary stages of developing a training exercise, but has several issues to consider.

The most significant is the approaching summer fire season.

There is reluctance to set the buildings alight for training if there is a risk of flames spreading, he said.

Any training exercise would be better timed with the region’s cooler and damper months, Malone said.

That could force the county to wait to get the property cleared.

“We are kind of looking at all of the options,” Malone said.

County officials said there is no specific timetable requiring demolition.

The complex is made up of 24 buildings with four units in each, plus a caretaker’s home.

If they are used for fire training, at least three of the buildings would not be set on fire to provide a safety buffer.

County commissioners last week said that the complex is large enough that it might be suitable for a simulation of a large disaster requiring a regionwide response. That kind of training could involve the county’s emergency management department, Spokane airport fire crews, other fire agencies and even Fairchild crews.

Commissioner Al French told project manager Don Coon to contact different agencies to gauge interest in a wider exercise. He also said that if the buildings are set on fire, it needs to be done when Fairchild is not using the runway approach since a plume of smoke could create a hazard for aircraft.

Commissioners and other local leaders have been eager to remove housing units from beneath the approach to Fairchild’s runway in the area designated as the “accident potential zone.”

Another 188 units, mainly manufactured homes, also are inside the Fairchild crash zone in the vicinity of Solar World.

Last year, voters rejected a property tax levy lift measure to provide up to $20 million over nine years for purchase and relocation of those properties.

Residents living in those manufactured homes recently circulated a petition in opposition to being forced off their parks. A copy of the petition sent to The Spokesman-Review has 70 names. Many of the residents own their homes, but rent their lots.

Catholic Charities has been trying to put together a project for alternate housing on the opposite side of U.S. Highway 2 where residents could relocate.

Once the Solar World land is vacated, French said, it could be sold off for light industries that employ small workforces – a land use that meets Air Force guidelines for human occupancy in the accident zones.


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