County adopts new standards for private bridges

Action addresses fire district officials' safety concerns




Addressing safety concerns raised by fire district officials, the Board of Clark County Commissioners on Tuesday adopted a set of standards for bridges on private roads.

“It has taken a while, but I think we have a very workable ordinance now,” said Chairman Marc Boldt.

The rules apply in unincorporated Clark County, which has an estimated 679 privately owned bridges. Many of the bridges have never been inspected, and fire district officials have been lobbying the county to adopt a set of uniform rules.

Interest intensified after a legal battle tipped in favor of firefighters.

In 2010, 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 a private bridge. 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.

Under the rules adopted Tuesday, requirements for existing private bridges will only be triggered by plans for new development. The codes apply “to any private bridge that exists or that is proposed as part of a subdivision, short plat, site plan review application, conditional use permit application or building permit application.”

If an inspection shows that a bridge needs to be upgraded or rebuilt, property owners can choose to install residential fire sprinklers in new homes served by the bridge instead of paying to upgrade or rebuild the bridge.

Otherwise, existing bridges aren’t required to be evaluated or upgraded. Property owners can check with their fire district to see if there are any concerns about their bridge. Carolyn Heniges, bridge program manager for Clark County Public Works, said homeowners have been submitting engineering specifics of their bridges as part of a public outreach process.

The code adopted Tuesday also makes it less expensive to build new bridges, as existing code requires wider bridges with railings. Now, bridges can be a minimum of 12 feet wide with 12-inch curbs. Minimum-width bridges must be posted as one-way and have turnouts at each end.

Bridges must be sturdy enough to handle a 72,000-pound vehicle; load limits will have to be posted on a sign.

New bridges and upgraded bridges will have to be inspected every five years by an engineer.

Commissioner Tom Mielke expressed concern about the five-year requirement, but said the county needs to start somewhere, and time will tell if five years is too short of a period or too long.

In contrast, bridges on public roads are inspected every two years.

Chief Scott Koehler of East County Fire & Rescue told commissioners Tuesday that a lot of work went into the ordinance.

“It’s been beat around several times,” he said, adding that he has experienced a bridge failure, and it’s not something he wants to experience again. Setting requirements on private bridges “provides safety to everybody, not just fire services,” Koehler said.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or