Mudslide report offers ideas to be ready for next disaster

OSO — Twenty years ago, the Legislature passed a law governing how statewide resources would be deployed to wildfires and other major emergencies.

Over time, that got convoluted in legal interpretation. When the fatal mudslide struck Oso in March, that help wasn’t there. They were denied by the state because nothing was on fire.

On Monday, a state commission that studied the mudslide released its final report, calling for an expansion of the wildfire mobilization law to include all emergencies. The report also urges state leaders to accelerate work on mapping landslide hazards and to rethink the state’s emergency response network.

State Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, whose district includes Oso, on Monday said he is sponsoring a bill to change fire-mobilization rules as the commission has recommended.

Fire chiefs from Snohomish County and around the state have been pushing for the clarification for nearly a decade. What happened at Oso — where local resources were overwhelmed — added urgency to those conversations.

The Joint SR 530 Landslide Commission was created by Gov. Jay Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick to review the disaster and the emergency response and to identify ways to improve public safety. The group of about a dozen experts began meeting in August.

“It wasn’t just a commission going through a bunch of policies and coming up with recommendations,” said commissioner Bill Trimm, a land-use consultant and former Mill Creek community development director. “We really tried to understand the heartbreak and the human conditions. It was very humbling for me, personally.”

The final report made 17 recommendations. It’s up to the governor and the Legislature to act on them. Trimm is confident change will materialize.

“None of the people on the commission wanted to spend the time and energy and have this report sit on the shelf,” he said. “There are some specific actions in the document that we want to pursue immediately.”

The wait might not be long.

Inslee on Monday said that his transportation package includes $36 million for landslide mitigation, mapping and analysis. He planned to share details Tuesday.

That’s in line with the commission’s recommendation to accelerate the mapping of landslide hazards with LiDAR, a remote-sensing technology that uses lasers to make high-resolution landscape images. Experts can use the information to identify past landslides and areas where risks of future events are highest.

Only a few areas of the state have been mapped using the technology, and none of the charts are as detailed as experts recommend.

Commissioners suggested prioritizing mapping in several areas: the Seattle-Everett rail corridor, the I-5 corridor, mountain highways, urban areas and state forests.

Meanwhile, changing the fire mobilization law is on the short list of legislative priorities for local chiefs, the Washington Fire Chiefs group and the state fire commissioners group, said Eric Andrews. The Gold Bar fire chief and Clearview deputy fire chief is in charge of requesting mobilization for this part of Washington.

The topic has come up at every Snohomish County fire chiefs meeting since the slide, Andrews said. The wildfire mobilization process works so well in part because the state pays the costs, so small departments aren’t left with massive bills for regional events. The bills for the mudslide still are being worked out between local agencies and businesses, the county, the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Questions about how to pay for non-wildfire disasters have stumped the Legislature, including this past session. Lawmakers have been hesitant to approve new expenses, particularly unpredictable expenses. The way the law has been interpreted, the Washington State Patrol could be on the hook for the tab if it approves a wildfire mobilization for anything but a fire, according to fire chiefs.

Those pushing for the change are trying to clear up confusion about the funding sources and build bipartisan support, said lobbyist Dylan Doty with the state fire chiefs group.

“We view it as more of a technical correction than a policy shift,” Doty said Monday. “This is the original intent of the (law). We view this as a dangerously narrow interpretation that we’re trying to correct.”

State mobilization has been requested 180 times since 1994, according to state data. Oso was the only formal denial, because chiefs had been putting the brakes on non-fire requests since the state Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion criticizing application of the law for the 1999 World Trade Organization riots in Seattle. The only other non-fire mobilization was for a motorcycle rally in Eastern Washington in 2005.

After the mudslide, Andrews and Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper made the request for statewide resources, even though they expected it would be denied. They knew their decisions would come under scrutiny, Andrews said.

Pearson said his interest in the change grew from meeting with people in the Stillaguamish Valley.

“We want to make sure no one is hamstrung by our state laws or by a (legal) opinion,” he said.

Another voice pushing for change has been Dave LaFave, the chief of Cowlitz 2 Fire &Rescue based in Kelso. He was on the planning team that got the bill passed in the 1990s. It was never supposed to limit state resources to fighting wildfires, he said Monday.

It was about making sure “we weren’t hung up on bureaucracy of how do we go help someone,” he said.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” LaFave said. “Our plan is one of the best plans in the nation for mobilizing fire-service resources. The issue is it should include all fire-service resources, not just equipment for wildfires.”

The mudslide took 43 lives, buried about 40 homes and wiped out a stretch of Highway 530. This past weekend, survivors spent time in the peace grove planted at the site this summer, decorating the memorial trees with ornaments and garlands for Christmas.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

Other commission recommendations include:

Incorporate skilled volunteers into disaster responses, such as loggers who played a valuable role in Oso.

Create a task force to study emergency management at the state level. Have the task force deliver a report to the governor in 2016.

Create liaisons to work directly with tribes after disasters.

Increase disaster response funding.

Develop standards for requesting, tracking, mobilizing and demobilizing resources such as personnel and equipment.

Continue to study and monitor the Oso slide area.

Establish a better system for creating lists of missing people after disasters and for communicating with families of the missing and dead.

Use more social media to communicate after disasters.

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