Fire officials reluctant to use some privately owned bridges
Monday, September 19, 2011
Years before he became a policymaker and was asked to balance property owners’ rights with public safety, Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt experienced firsthand why people should care about placing load requirements on privately owned bridges.
In the 1970s, Boldt was driving a concrete truck for Aphis Ready Mix near Amboy when a private bridge buckled under the weight of his truck.
The front end tipped forward, landing in a stream.
His truck went down. His awareness of privately-owned, never-inspected bridges that were built with no regard for code? That went up.
So it might not come as a surprise that Boldt has emerged as the biggest supporter of adopting engineering standards for new private bridges and encouraging property owners to get existing bridges inspected and brought up to code if they are substandard.
That’s if they want a fire engine to show up when they call 911.
Boldt was unable to attend a Sept. 7 work session with representatives from the county’s fire districts and North Country EMS.
Commissioners Steve Stuart and Tom Mielke were briefed on the conflict: Fire districts say they won’t take their biggest vehicles across substandard private bridges and there are property owners who may be unaware of the problem or those who don’t want to pay to fix it.
A local legal battle tipped the way of firefighters last year.
A Cowlitz County jury ruled in favor of Cowlitz 2 Fire and Rescue, which was sued by a developer after it notified property owners it would not cross the private Libby Lane Bridge over the Coweeman River. The bridge was made of two steel rail cars welded together and an inspection showed it to be insufficient to handle the weight of a fire engine; bridges made from steel rail cars are commonly found in Clark County.
At the end of the Sept. 7 meeting, Stuart said he supports setting load requirements on new bridges and initiating an outreach program to inform property owners about the risks of existing bridges.
Mielke supported the outreach plan, but doesn’t want to tell people how they have to build a bridge on a private road.
What would be next, Mielke asked, commissioners telling people how they have to build private driveways?
“You do, actually,” Stuart said. “It’s part of our code.”
With backing from Boldt and Stuart, commissioners will continue working on a new standard for private bridges.
A follow-up work session will be scheduled later this year, Clark County Public Works Director Pete Capell said Monday.
Bridges on public roads are inspected every two years. Load-limited bridges must have a posted sign to warn drivers, Capell said.
By comparison, under the county proposal, private bridges would be inspected every five years and required to have a posted sign.
679 private bridges
Clark County Fire Marshal Jon Dunaway said there are an estimated 679 private bridges in the county, a number calculated using mapping data showing the location of private driveways and roads crossing streams and other waterways.
But the county doesn’t know for certain how many private bridges are out there. Some are on roads where the brush is so overgrown that people drive over a bridge without even realizing it.
Deputy Prosecutor Chris Horne said that for bridges built on lots that were subdivided prior to April 1993 — when the county enacted a large-lot ordinance — roads were exempt from standards.
Private roads and bridges are maintained by the property owners.
Under county road standards, a private driveway can serve as access to three lots; a road must go in for four or more lots.
Mielke questioned why those roads aren’t public, but public roads must be built to county standards. Not everyone wants to pay that expense to bring a road up to current standards, Horne said, or, as is the case in certain subdivisions, people want to live in a gated community and public roads cannot be gated.
Private roads can serve up to 50 homes in a rural area, up to 100 homes in an urban area, Horne said.
While Dunaway can estimate how many private bridges there are in the county, he cannot guess how many might not be adequate for emergency vehicles.
How expensive it could be to bring a bridge up to code varies, said Steve Madsen, government affairs director for the Building Industry Association of Clark County. Madsen was part of a group that came up with the recommendations.
There’s too many different types of bridges and different environmental considerations, he said, to give an estimate.
Just getting an initial inspection and analysis, however, could cost between $2,000 and $10,000, a bill that would be split among property owners.
While some bridges are made from rail cars, some are made of logs and covered in gravel and were put in when the site was first logged, Horne said.
Under the state-mandated fire code, homes at least 150 feet from a fire hydrant have to have a fire apparatus road, Horne said. There are guidelines on height and width and weight capacity.
“If the road was never reviewed by the county, then we don’t even know where these bridges are,” Horne said.
Ultimately, the county would like an inventory of the bridges so 911 dispatchers could alert responders.
“Always a concern”
Firefighters know where the trouble spots are in their districts, said Chief Steve Wrightson of Clark County Fire District 3 in Hockinson.
Five days after the work session, Wrightson turned his sports utility vehicle off Northeast 227th Avenue onto Northeast 224th Street, a narrow gravel road that serves as the only access to 12 residences.
He came to a stop before rolling his SUV over the bridge, a layer of concrete over a single rail car. Part of the curb is missing; the bridge is approximately 12 feet above a stream.
He drove his SUV over the bridge.
“Did you hear that cracking? That’s the bridge,” Wrightson said.
He would not take one of his department’s 60,000-pound water tenders or a 38,000 pound engine over it. The homes are all a distance from the main road, and if the department has to respond, it would take a 28,000 pound 4-wheel drive vehicle, he said.
He said private bridges have always been a concern, but it’s not as simple as saying, “Just don’t go” when it comes to trying to help someone who lives on the other side of a substandard bridge, he said.
The department will do its best to respond, even if it means stopping short of the bridge and trying to run hundreds of feet of hose up to the home.
“None of us like to say we're not going to be able to respond,” he said.
If Wrightson sends one of his departments’ two water tenders, which cost between $250,000 and $300,000 each, and a bridge collapses, “it could turn upside down and I’d have people trapped,” Wrightson said.
Plus, as Dunaway told commissioners, if a department loses an engine, it can’t exactly just go out and buy a new one. It can take months to replace an engine, Dunaway said.
Less costly option
While Mielke balked at issuing a mandate for new bridges on private roads, staff members told him that current guidelines are more expensive than what’s proposed. The current standard is the one used for public roads, Capell said. The recommendation by the work group was to have a less costly alternative (not requiring two lanes or pedestrian access, for example) but something that could still hold 60,000 pounds.
If commissioners do adopt a new standard, the other piece will be trying to inform homeowners of the risk.
To insure they will have emergency service, they can pay to have their bridge inspected and rated, Capell said.
But commissioners are not ready to mandate that people need to fix a bridge.
“If they choose not to do it, then they are at risk for not having emergency service,” Capell said. “There are going to be people who oppose it, and that’s fine.” The people the county really wants to reach, Capell said, are the ones who are “totally unaware” that if they have a fire at their home, they may be out of luck.