Proposed county CAO rules worry county fire officials

KING COUNTY - The county's top fire officials say proposed rules limiting clearing on rural land are confusing and might lead to more wildfires.

The rules outlined in the proposed Critical Areas Ordinance have been criticized by rural property owners and are being hotly debated by the King County Council, including recent changes that add fire safety provisions.

The King County Fire Chiefs Association worries that any limits to clearing underbrush or debris blown down in storms creates more fuel for wildfires, said Bud Backer, association president and deputy fire chief of Woodinville Fire and Life Safety.

"It creates more intense fires and could possibly carry the fire to people's homes,'' Backer said. Brush and storm debris can become ladder fuels, Backer said, allowing a fire to climb into the forest canopy and spread faster.

"Fighting these kinds of fires is tough to begin with,'' Backer said. "With our summers getting drier and drier, it's only a matter of time before we see an event like Eastern Washington or Southern California. We've been able to dodge the bullet around here so far.''

King County Executive Ron Sims proposed limiting property owners to clearing no more than 35 percent of their land; an amendment by County Councilman Dow Constantine and other Democrats on the County Council would allow the clearing of up to 50 percent of a lot smaller than five acres.

In rural unincorporated areas, a large majority of properties are five acres or less. The goal, officials said, remains to retain 65 percent of a watershed basin in native vegetation. Sims supports the proposed changes.

The proposed county rules are intended to protect the environment and prevent sprawl, not focus on fire safety, said Harry Reinert, county special projects manager overseeing the proposed Critical Areas Ordinance.

Still, fire safety issues are now addressed, Reinert said. As amended, no permit would be needed to clear "vegetation for fire safety'' if carried out carefully, or to use county staff for a free forest stewardship plan.

Also, the amendment ensures "that landowners can prevent wildfires, collect firewood and remove invasive plants.''

"If your house is located within 30 feet of a forest where you've got a risk of forest fire jumping to your house, then you can clear that area around your structure,'' Reinert said. "You can clear overhanging structures, can clear the understory to reduce underbrush.''

Up to 7,000 square feet, about one-sixth of an acre, can be cleared without a permit, according to the latest proposal.

"It sounds like they're listening to our concerns and moving in the right direction,'' Backer said. "We're evaluating the proposed changes and hope to find common ground.''

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