Jefferson County to update fire danger management

Officials look at models for changing, communicating restrictions

PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson County is looking to update the way it manages burn regulations ahead of this year’s fire season and in response to last-minute notices issued last year.

The Board of Jefferson County Commissioners on Tuesday asked county Fire Marshal Phil Cecere to draft an ordinance that would change the way the county tracks fire danger and the process for implementing certain restrictions based on conditions.

Last year, Jefferson County banned commercial fireworks in response to increased fire danger on July 3, just two days after the county had issued permits to some temporary fireworks stands.

The sudden change in policy was needed, but Cecere said the county can do a better job in communicating to the public about what changes are being made, when and why.

Currently, burn restrictions are passed by a resolution of the county commissioners, and emergency orders can be made by the fire marshal based on conditions. That model keeps commissioners apprised of the current fire situation but allows for less flexibility as commissioners meet only once a week and agenda items must be made available to the public in advance.

Having the fire marshal set burn restrictions would allow for the quickest decision-making time, but it would involve the least amount of public feedback, Cecere said, giving a lot of discretion to the person who makes the decision.

Another model, which would create a public board to manage fire restrictions, involves more input and could meet more quickly than the commissioners, but it would require additional resources, including staff time, and could lead to politicization of important life and safety regulations.

Commissioners said Tuesday they like the expediency of having the fire marshal able to make decisions but wanted more transparency and public feedback in the process.

Commissioners Kate Dean and Heidi Eisenhour asked Cecere to come up with a hybrid option, combining the public board model with allowances for the fire marshal to make emergency decisions to be proposed at a later meeting.

District 3 Commissioner Greg Brotherton was not present for the discussion.

Cecere also proposed bringing the county’s fire danger rating system in line with the National Fire Danger Rating System, a 1-5 scale ranging from low (in green) to extreme (in red). The rating system is already familiar to the public, as it’s used by national parks and forests, and each danger rating could be matched with local restrictions.

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached by email at peter.segall@peninsulanews.us.

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