At this time of the year, when smoke hangs thick over the Spokane area, overgrown lots covered in tall, dry grass and weeds are more than an eyesore: They may become a fire danger.
At last week’s Spokane Valley City Council meeting, Valley resident Glen Flachmeyer told the council that he’s tired of all the unkempt lots he sees in the Valley.
“You drive down Sprague and you see vacant businesses and grass growing up to your belt and a real estate sign in the middle of the lot,” Flachmeyer said. “What about those lots? Shouldn’t they be maintained?”
A casual drive down Sprague Avenue brings plenty of examples of what Flachmeyer is talking about.
On the corner of University Road and Sprague Avenue – right next to the manicured grounds of Banner Bank – is a large empty area. A car that looks lived in has been parked there for months.
The Edge Restaurant sits vacant and boarded up, surrounded by tall grass and shrubbery, in the 7000 block of East Sprague Avenue, right in the middle of Auto Row. And the area behind Ron’s Burgers on East Sprague Avenue has a certain prairie feel to it by now.
The issue has been brought up at council meetings before and Carolbelle Branch, Spokane Valley’s public information officer, said all lots must be maintained in compliance with Spokane Valley’s nuisance ordinance.
“We average about six complaints about overgrown weeds per week during the dry season,” Branch said.
Spokane Valley employs one code enforcement officer, who will inspect the lot and inform the noxious weed board and the fire department if the area is deemed a fire hazard.
The problem is not specific to Spokane Valley.
The city of Spokane has empty lots both in residential and business areas. And just like in the Valley, the rules are the same whether they are commercial or private lots: They must be kept free of debris and tall weeds.
“For fire hazards or trash, the rules are the same for residential and commercial properties,” said Brian Coddington, director of communications and marketing for the city of Spokane. “For fire hazards, lots over 10,000 square feet can be brought into compliance by maintaining a 10-foot fire break around the perimeter.”
Coddington said the bulk of fire hazard complaints are about residential properties.
Spokane’s six code enforcement officers have received 257 fire hazard complaints so far this year, Coddington said.
When it comes to complaining about a lot, calling the real estate agent on the sign probably will not make much of a difference, as responsibility for cleanup and maintenance falls squarely on the owner of the lot.
Marianne Guenther Bornhoft, a realtor with Windermere Manito, said it’s possible that a listing broker has a maintenance agreement with the owner, but that’s rare.
“We are hired only to market and sell,” Guenther Bornhoft said.
If the owner of the lot proves elusive, then the proper channel of complaint is the code enforcement office or the local fire marshal.
Spokane Valley Fire Marshal Greg Rogers said it doesn’t make much difference whether the lot is mowed or not when it comes to how fast a fire spreads.
“An overgrown lot may produce bigger flames, but the wind determines how fast the fire spreads,” Rogers said.
Rogers is much more worried about potential ignition sources than the size of the weeds.
And the most common igniters aren’t surprising: children with matches and lighters, cigarette butts thrown out of car windows or off hiking trails and cigarettes put out in dry potting soil.
“Now people smoke in the car on the way to the restaurant,” said Spokane Valley assistant fire marshal Bill Clifford. “And then they throw the butt in the bark in front of the restaurant and start a fire there.”
Illegal campfires left smoldering are also frequent fire starters.
“Because everything is so dry we have to be more aware of what we are doing,” Rogers said. “That’s really the issue.”
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