Saturday, October 21, 2017

Election Forum - Whatcom County Jail Tax

Jails are very much a part of the Washington landscape (had to get that in). Every county in the state has one as do many of the cities. The county jail is the leading edge of the United States criminal justice system. The jail is a big part of every County budget. Criminal justice and criminal justice spending is complex.

So for Whatcom-centric folks that are trying to decide how to vote the jail tax you can get a couple of perspectives here, but this conversation is at some level very much part of every community (Jail Woes). I am the Vote No Jail Tax person in this video. For a short cut version I have a few major points below.

Cost of the jail will be $250,000 per bed compared to Skagit County at $120,000 per bed. This puts the proposed Whatcom jail as one if not the most expensive jail per bed in the United States.

Tax proponents have stated that some of the tax money will be directed to incarceration reduction programs. There is no guarantee that will take place and the amount suggested is initially $500,000 per year. The amount will go to the jail construction will be $6,759,208 per year assuming the bonds to pay this amount over 30 years can be had at 4.5% and the jail come in on budget.

The existing jails were evaluated by a engineering firm and were found to be "structurally sound and in fair to good condition". They estimated that both jails could be upgraded and maintained at a cost of $32.4 million over a period of 20 years. The cost of the proposed jail will be $202 million over 30 years, and the $202 million assumes no future expansion.

The same engineering firm that reviewed the jail conditions asked the county if a portion of the existing low security jail be improved and hardened for medium security. The 'County officials' stated that the would have to have new public outreach and this was a nonstarter. The fact is the county never evaluated this option in a public manner nor any other options.

When the County did an EIS on the jail they only evaluated options 1) build the proposed jail or 2) don't build a new jail. Given that this project is by far the largest capitol project in the county with broad community impacts that will last generations and evaluating only 2 options is a poor way to make such a large decision. I testified to that during the EIS process.       

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Yakima Canyon and Bighorn Sheep

There are two road routes between Ellensburg and Selah. One is Interstate 82 is the high road passing over Manastah Ridge, Umtanum Ridge the shoulder of Selah Butte. The other is route is very slightly shorter (less than a mile) but slower. That route is the low route that follows the incised meander bends of the Yakima River as it winds through the ridges. 

The lower slopes have more water and shade and hence the canyon is a nice mix of scrub steppe with patches of ponderosa pine ecosystems as well as riparian areas along the river. Driving the canyon (or floating) one has a sense of the meanders, but an aerial view shows that some of the bends in the river are very tight.

Much of the east side of the canyon (the road side) is managed by the BLM. The west side is mostly Washington State Fish and Wildlife managed land with some Department of Natural Resources and BLM. The Nature Conservancy also has a presence. The canyon is a popular recreational area for rafting, tubing, fishing and hunting.

Along one of these meander bends I slowed to take in the views of scree slopes just above the road (the slopes in question can be seen above). My geology slow down allowed me to spot two bighorn sheep, a ewe and her now large lamb.

It was good to see them. Bighorn sheep throughout the west are subject to pneumonia outbreaks that are thought to have originated from domestic goats and sheep, but not in a very straight forward manner. The outbreaks and how the bighorns are impacted is not a simple problem nor are the responses ( The two Yakima Canyon herds suffered large losses in 2010 (State, federal wildlife officials to selectively remove sick Yakima River canyon bighorn sheep); hence, it was good to see a ewe and her maturing lamb.  

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Santa Rosa Fire Notes - My Old Town

I have a more than passing interest in the wildfire that burned into Santa Rosa. I lived there and taught school there for three years. The fire that burned into the north portion of the city torched hundreds of homes within a very urban setting within 3,000 feet of where I lived. A very humbling thing to contemplate that homes in an urban neighborhood were at risk from a wildland wildfire. Wind and heat matter.

This map provides an interactive viewing of the burned area with infrared imagery.

Screen shot of the burnt neighborhood
Red areas are live vegetation

I wanted to get a sense of some of the areas that burned associated with this fire. The fire start was from north of the map program (there are other burned areas covered as well shown on the map).

The fire reached the northeast part of the city in Rincon Valley. The fire had burned through very steep rugged hills that are a mix of grass, thick brush, oaks and drought tolerant pines. A very fire prone ecology. Stopping a fire in hot windy weather in that terrain would have been impossible. The Rincon Valley is a mix of small farms, semi rural/suburban area on the north and urban on the south.

Infrared image of burn area along the north edge of Santa Rosa in the Rincon Valley.
Arrow shows the approximate direction the fire burned.

Approximately the same area via Google Earth (July 2016)

Much of the Rincon Valley near the city edge is grass land. The area gets over 30 inches of rain a year so the grass grows very thick and tall through the winter and early Spring. Typically by June things are already fairly dry. The  The grass readily burns and burns fast. Based on infrared image the fire did not kill the trees. A grass fire through a stand of trees often does not damage the trees. That said, this fire moved very fast and burned into the edge of the city shown above destroying dozens of homes.

Destroyed homes south of grass field 

I did a street view tour of  the ground in the Rincon Valley along a former running route that I used to run on Wallace Drive. The street view images are from June 2016.

View looking east towards the rugged hills on the east side of Rincon Valley  

This field was plowed - a very good way to reduce wild fire in this setting

However. across the street, to the west was an unplowed and ungrazed field.
Note the trees become thicker and dense up the slope in the distance.

Infrared of street views shown above

It appears that the perimeter of the field shown above is routinely plowed in late Spring. Some homes were destroyed in this area as the fire burned through, but may of the trees survived and still have their leaves. 

To the west of Rincon Valley the landscape changes as does the vegetation and then again the densiy of homes.

A forest and brush covered ridge bounds the west side of Ricon Valley with much denser housing on the west side of the ridge

The fast moving grass and brush fire with high wind and heat pushing it must have burned up the ridge into that dry forest and brush and exploded into the suburban homes nestled into the forest and brush landscape.
Street view of the ridge area
Chaparral and pines and homes 

Nearly every home in this suburban neighborhood was burned. I tried looking at roof types and building materials via street view. Wood siding and asphalt roofs were allowed in this suburban neighborhood. That said, there were tile roof and stucco homes that burned. One odd home that did not burn in the middle of the conflagration had an asphalt roof and wood siding.

Why this house? Arrow points to a house that did not burn

The burning of the Coffey Park area on the northwest part of the city is the truly humbling aspect of this fire. The neighborhood was flanked by urban commercial and light industrial buildings as well as a 4-lane divided highway. The fire jumped the highway and hundreds of homes burned out of control well outside the much discussed wildland/urban interface.

A lesson every fire person knows - a fire with heat and wind will find any bit of fuel to burn.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Jail Tax Forum Prep and the Jail Work Crew

Whatcom County Jail Work Crew at Lake Bridge Project
Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest 

I am doing some crash research related to a forum I am speaking at tomorrow. The forum is on a proposed sales tax in Whatcom County for building a new jail. I am speaking against the jail tax.

This is a complicated subject. I do have some background on the subject having had to make lots of budget decisions during my 8-year stint as a county council member. How I got to NO on the jail tax is not the same as how others have and that complicates things further. The end of my planned opening statement tries to reflect that: "I cannot articulate everyone's nuanced views and concerns about this jail tax, but ask that you please join me and vote NO on the new jail tax. I will try to the best of my ability to answer your questions today."

In digging through the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force files I came across the above picture. The Whatcom County Sheriff Office has been running this program since the Federal Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act ( passed in the early 2000s. They have been doing work on National Forests trails ever since. Good to see some positive stuff in an otherwise downer subject. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Learning at a New Landslide

Our purpose was to assess a steep shoreline bluff slope along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Getting to the base of the slope meant taking a mile walk along the shore from an access point. This particular shoreline bluff is and has been a challenge to assess. The overall driver of landslides is erosion at the base of the slope. However, the shore bluff failures along this reach vary a lot due to the variability of the geologic units along the shoreline bluff. This shore reach is sort of a landslide lab. For my work, visiting and exploring a new landslide is a great way to learn and sometimes be humbled. 

On the way to the site for our work we encountered a fairly large new slide, and hence, an opportunity to learn.

I had walked this shore last October, and this slide post dates that visit.

We ended up spending a much longer time on this venture than originally planned. One part was to to try to figure out the mechanics and scale of the failure. What units failed? What was the mode of the failure? We spent time making observations, coming up with theories and explanations. The slide also provided an opportunity to observe up close some the geologic units on the bluff. While looking at this slide was not directly associated with the site we were to visit later, it helped inform our assessment and in the future will help inform our interpretations of other bluffs with similar conditions.

Yesterday I gave a short talk to a realtor group as part of a panel with the goal of helping realtors and their clients doing their due diligence for raw land. I noted that part of my work is driven by the desire for view property and that landslides do provide great views.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Wolf Hole, Ed Abbey and an Early Snow

I am sorting pictures from recent ventures away from Washington relative to subject matter that needs written up. Unrelated to my pending project, we drove through Wolf Hole, Arizona.

Approaching Wolf  Hole and Wolf Hole Mountain

Avid Edward Abbey fans may recognize Wolf Hole as one of Abbey's favorite byline locations. Wolf Hole once did have a post office, but I suspect that was just a place for local ranchers and loggers to pick up mail as there is an old ranch near the road. The post office was discontinued in 1927, well before Abbey spent any time near this place. The Wolf Hole byline I think played to Abbey's sense of fun or perhaps to a sense of self protection. He also enjoyed a little outrage. The idea of some crazed enemy or fan going out to Wolf Hole (or Oracle - another byline) to find Abbey is a bit amusing.

I had intended to do some recreational adventures during my return trip to Washington, but the weather in central Nevada altered my plans and schemes.

Approaching snow

Deciding that hike into the Toquina Range will have to wait

Lots of road time and a bit of news overload from my drive. I suspect Edward Abbey would have had some outrageous thing to write and to irritate during these days if he was still with us.

"I will salute the man, maybe, if I think he's worthy of it, but I don't salute uniforms anymore". 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Ponderosa with Character

I have been away from Washington. During my ventures I met a tree with character. This ponderosa  survived a lighting strike and carried a remarkable burn scar.

This tree is located in a forest area that historically burned on a 30 to 40 year interval. The scar appears to have followed a burn line that followed the growth habit of the tree which was twisted in a spiral pattern. The burn spiral extended nearly all the way up the tree.