MUKILTEO — It’s a message no homeowner wants to hear.
The Mukilteo Fire Department sent letters this past summer to about a dozen addresses on the private stretch of waterfront at Naketa Beach. The letters said that firefighters no longer will drive their trucks into the neighborhood. That’s a decision likely to delay emergency response.
The homes are directly on the beach, on the far side of the railroad tracks, with a marked pedestrian crossing. They share a foot path that goes more than 700 feet up the hill and into a parking lot. The lot is reached by a gravel road that’s about 575 feet long.
Before, the firetrucks would travel the gravel stretch. Now the firefighters must stop their rigs at the pavement.
They would have to carry any equipment they need, including hoses. Fire Chief Chris Alexander estimates that in the case of a fire, it could take a half-hour to get water flowing.
“Even where a response may be possible, it may be significantly delayed,” read the letter, which was signed by the fire marshal.
In emergencies, including fires and medical problems, “you should be prepared to make other arrangements,” the letter continued. “This notice may have an adverse effect on your insurance rates and your ability to sell or remodel your property.”
The letter was unprecedented for the city, and especially unusual in the suburbs. Modern development and construction codes have made large fires a rare occurrence in Mukilteo.
However, problems with emergency access have cropped up before in this part of the city, along the bluffs south of Old Town. The area was annexed in 1980, but the homes were built decades earlier, with private roads that are in places steep, winding and narrow. The rainy months are particularly worrisome, and it’s not just the roads. Sloughing and mudslides often shut down the rails, as many as 200 times a year between Edmonds and Everett. It’s a busy stretch of track for Sounder commuter trains, Amtrak travelers and freight.
Three years ago, a firetruck got stuck in a hairpin curve on its way to a blaze not far from Naketa Beach.
“We want to be careful where we send a 35,000-pound apparatus,” said Alexander, the fire chief, in a recent interview.
The August letter was issued in response to a request from a homeowner, he said. The man wanted a guarantee that the fire department would get there in a crisis.
First responders aren’t supposed to make promises to be in the right place by the right time. Doing so might expose them to liability.
If something bad ever happens at Naketa Beach, Alexander knows the city would face questions. After the August letter, fire department staff went door-to-door to talk with neighbors.
National standards recommend that firetrucks get within 150 feet of the emergency. At Naketa Beach, the farthest house is 2,400 feet from a hydrant. The firefighters can’t cross the tracks without permission from the railroad, which has to halt the trains.
Roads typically measure about 20 feet across. In places, the gravel road toward Naketa Beach is barely large enough for an 11-foot-wide firetruck.
The police department’s cars are smaller, but officers would face similar hurdles in getting to the beach, city spokesman Marko Liias said.
In the event of flames, the firefighters would have to run their hoses through a culvert underneath the tracks, Alexander said. The other option is the firefighting boat based in Edmonds, barring rough seas or low tides. The boat would take an estimated 30 minutes to arrive, he said.
Alexander wrote another letter to property owners in October. He suggested they consider improving the private road, adding connections to the public water system and installing fire sprinklers.
The city initially declined to provide the affected addresses until The Daily Herald filed a public records request.
Many properties on the beach are vacation homes. The newspaper attempted to reach everyone who received the letters, and few responded. One man said he had wanted to buy a house there, but his loan was denied because of the access problems. Another man declined to talk, because he was trying to sell.
Evan Westenberger, 29, had moved to a different part of the city. He inherited his two-bedroom beachhouse and lived there with his wife for years, until their daughter was born. It became too cumbersome to hike the path with an infant, and he didn’t like the way the mud came down the hillside, sometimes splashing on the house.
He’s been coming to Naketa Beach since he was a child, and the neighborhood has always had quirks. You can fish outside your front door, or just watch the ferries from home, but “if you need a new washer or dryer or whatever, you have to drag it down there,” he said.
Westenberger had no idea about the problems for firefighters until the August letter.
The suggested safety upgrades could cost millions, and he questions why he’s paid taxes all these years for emergency services when he may not get a response.
Still, he hasn’t forgotten the advice he says he received from firefighters. In case of emergency, “do whatever I can to get up that hill,” he said.