ROCK ISLAND — Randy Agnew moved to Rock Island when he was 12 years old. His parents wanted to live outside the bigger cities, and it was fairly inexpensive to buy a new house there on a decent-sized lot.
Today housing remains a big draw for people moving to Rock Island, said Agnew, who has been mayor since 2016.
“Most of the new housing, what sparked that was when they put in the sewer system” in 2012, he said. “All of a sudden, they could build five houses per acre instead of two houses per acre. At the time, at least, the lower cost of land prices here in Rock Island attracted the developers. ... They’re selling houses about as fast as they can build them — literally.”
The city has seen some annexations over the years, which contributed to the growth, but Agnew believes new housing is bringing in most of the new residents. Several subdivisions are in the works, and he said other builders have expressed interest.
For years Agnew has wanted to expand the urban growth area to open up more land for development. The city is also working to expand its water system.
In addition, the city and port have been looking at renovating the old silicon plant on the waterfront, though a purpose hasn’t yet been specified.
Agnew believes Rock Island’s future is bright.
“As we get more people here, we’ll start getting more businesses,” he said. “With more businesses we’ll start attracting more people. It’s a nice domino effect.”
Agnew, 60, said he moved away in his late teens but returned to Rock Island about 15 years ago because of available housing.
According to Sperling’s Best Places, the median home price is $301,500 in Wenatchee and $346,100 in East Wenatchee. In Rock Island it’s $212,600.
Agnew acknowledges that his city will likely become less affordable with the increased development.
Many people who moved there long ago for a more quiet life are not happy about the new homes popping up, he said. But development attracts more businesses and produces more tax revenue.
Over the years the city has seen an influx of young families, Agnew said. He believes the new housing will attract people who commute from Wenatchee or East Wenatchee to Quincy and drive past Rock Island on their way to work each day.
Besides the housing, Agnew believes the ponds, which the city is working with the Chelan County PUD to improve, will entice people to visit or live there.
“The image of Rock Island, I think, is changing as we grow,” he said. “It’s been a low-income, poor community for a long time, but that’s changing. And the more that changes, the more people will be attracted to it.”
NCW — The Cold Springs Fire in Okanogan County was about 25% contained at 187,689 acres as of Friday.
About 290 firefighters were assigned to the fire, with those on the ground helped by helicopter bucket operations, according to the Northeast Washington Interagency Incident Management Team, which also reported:
The Pearl Hill Fire in Douglas County was at 41% containment at 219,956 acres, fire spokesman Wayne Patterson said Thursday evening.
Crews were working to secure fire lines west of Bridgeport to stop spread near the Columbia River, Patterson said. He added that crews made progress securing lines on the northeast corner of the fire, too.
The town of Mansfield and areas south and east of Highway 172 to Highway 2 and Highway 17 were at Level 2 evacuations as of Thursday, according to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. Power was restored inside the Bridgeport city limits.
Patterson noted that the Apple Acres Fire in Chelan was nearing a patrol and mop-up status.
EPHRATA — It looked like pictures from NASA’s Mars rover, state Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Jon Gallie said.
Where there once was sagebrush supporting half the remaining population of the near-extinct Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, now there was only sand and dust, Gallie said.
“The sun was blotted out, it was just red from the fire glare and the smoke and all you saw was rocks and sand and dust, there was just nothing,” he said. “I have not seen a sagebrush fire that hot in my 13 years out here.”
The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is a species that has gone through a lot. In 2004, the species disappeared from the landscape and the remaining rabbits were bred in captivity at universities and zoos, until enough of a population was established to start reintroducing them in 2011.
Then in 2017, the Sutherland Canyon Fire destroyed one of the agency’s larger breeding enclosures in Beezley Hills, killing 85 bunnies, but 32 others survived.
This time there were no survivors at the Jameson Lake site. The Cold Spring Canyon fire killed half of the project’s entire rabbit population. Biologists still do have rabbits at Beezley Hills and Sagebrush Flats.
“When this happened in Beezley, we saw it right away, rabbits were popping out of their burrows,” Gallie said. “But everywhere we went this week, we saw absolutely nothing.”
In 2017, some of the rabbits were able to wait out the fire by hiding in their burrows, but this time the fire was just too hot, Gallie said.
“It was an extremely hot fire and pretty damaging to the infrastructure, but worse there was just no way that the animals were going to survive in their burrows with that kind of extreme fire conditions,” he said.
The biggest tragedy was to the wild population of rabbits that had just started to establish in the area, Gallie said. Biologists identified about 120 different rabbit sites over 1,000 acres of area, which could have meant anywhere from one to 120 wild rabbits.
“Unfortunately we lost a tremendous amount of recovery capital up there and the wild population that we had worked for three years to establish was starting to take off,” he said.
On Monday morning, biologists out of the regional office in Ephrata heard about the fire in Douglas County, Gallie said. They were considering going out there to rescue the rabbits, but based on the wind patterns they thought the rabbits would be safe.
Jameson Lake sits in the middle of Douglas County, eight miles south of Mansfield.
“It was just gone in an instant, the wind shifted and pretty much, it went like 30 miles straight into Douglas County in a couple hours,” he said. “It was just so fast there was literally nothing we could have done.”
Biologists will not be returning to that area for maybe the next 30 years with pygmy rabbits, Gallie said. The rabbits need sagebrush, which is their food source, water source and protection. They also need the brush to be three to five feet tall.
It will take at least 10 to 15 years for the sagebrush to start regrowing, he said.
“This literally was like you tore 10 pages of our recovery plan and just threw it out the window,” Gallie said.
Biologists have always known that a large disaster could impact the rabbits, which is why they have been releasing them at multiple sites, he said. It slows down the recovery process, but it prevents them from betting all their rabbits on one location.
“When one area blinks out, there’s enough neighboring areas that can repopulate when the habitat comes back,” Gallie said.
The biologists still have rabbits in four other enclosures, three other acclimation pens and two other wild populations on the landscape in the Beezley Hills and Sagebrush Flats areas, he said. Beezley Hills is just north of Quincy and Sagebrush Flats is northwest of Ephrata.
Depending on how next season goes, they may also take some breeding pairs from the wild to help bolster numbers.
“They are still there and untouched and those animals that we have, there is a lot more resting on their tiny shoulders right now,” Gallie said.