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Mural at Rocky Reach Dam headed into storage — but will make a comeback

WENATCHEE — Workers on Wednesday started removing a mural that has greeted visitors to Rocky Reach Dam since the early 1960s.

The Rocky Reach Dam Discovery Center is home to Walter Graham’s Horsepower mural, which has hung in the center’s lobby for decades. This temporary artwork takedown is part of a building renovation by the Chelan County PUD.

Renovations on the Discovery Center are projects to be completed by spring of 2021.

Once taken down, workers will roll the mural in a preservative plastic wrap, then store it away, said Kim Craig, a spokeswoman for the Discovery Center project. The PUD contracted ArtSite for $10,000 to help safely remove the artwork, she said.

The mural will be kept in storage until completion of the PUD’s Customer Service Center in Olds Station where plans are in the works for its display.

The mural has been part of the visitor center since it opened.

More than 94% of public school students in Washington state learning remotely this fall, new data show

SEATTLE — More than 94% of Washington state public school kids beginning classes this month are doing so almost entirely remotely, according to new data from the state education department.

The numbers, which the state said were current as of last Friday, are the first official account of how the state’s 300-plus school districts, charter schools and tribal compact schools planned to resume teaching after a summer of constant tinkering with reopening plans.

It comes about a month after Gov. Jay Inslee and other state officials declared it was unsafe for the vast majority of schools to reopen their buildings given the coronavirus case counts in their communities. At the time of announcement, the state Department of Health (DOH) unveiled a long-awaited guide to help districts decide what approach to take based on their county’s case numbers.

Though Inslee’s call was not a mandate, and the DOH’s guidance was not legally binding, about 82% of districts deemed high-risk by this guide — those located in areas that had more than 75 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period — followed health officials’ advice to conduct most learning remotely, with some exceptions for small groups of students with special needs.

A recent national estimate found that about half of all U.S. children were learning virtually only this fall — significantly lower than Washington.

Even districts in counties considered lower-risk planned to start remotely, including school systems in the San Juan Islands. The dataset shows 219 districts as being in high-risk areas, but nearly 250 districts still planned a remote-only start, suggesting some places are taking more a more conservative approach than health officials are advising.

Though the number of students they serve is small in comparison, there were also many districts that planned to reopen buildings despite high case counts. That could be for a number of reasons, including political views about schools reopening, a very small enrollment or even a lack of broadband access in families’ homes. Of the 58 school systems teaching in-person completely or partially, more than half were considered high-risk by the state.

The Mead School District, in Spokane County, is the largest school district to begin in a hybrid mode of online and in-person schooling, with 10,771 students. The Kittitas School District, 38 miles north of Yakima, is the largest district to start completely in-person. It has 680 students. Both districts are in higher-risk counties.

Yakima-area fire destroys five homes and is still uncontained

NACHES — The Evans Canyon Fire, which had destroyed five homes and grown to nearly 52,000 acres, was still entirely uncontained as of late Wednesday afternoon.

Evacuations in the area, which began Tuesday, spread to include 900 homes by midday Wednesday, with the Red Cross helping evacuees find shelter in local hotels.

The fire, which began around 2:30 p.m. Monday about 8 miles north of Naches, had grown to 30,000 acres by 7 a.m. Wednesday, racing through the Wenas Valley southeast toward Selah and crossing the Yakima-Kittitas county line.

The destruction of the five primary residences represents “the greatest loss of property to fire in Yakima County in nearly five years,” according to emergency officials.

More than 60 families have been housed by the Red Cross at two Yakima-area hotels, said Michele Roth, executive director of the Red Cross for Central and Southeastern Washington. The organization can’t use large, open-layout shelters because of the pandemic, she said.

By 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, high winds and the day’s heat had increased the fire’s size to 34,775 acres, or 54 square miles, incident team spokesman Roland Emetaz said. At that point, it was still 0% contained, he said, with 437 personnel working the fire. That included nine hand crews, 10 bulldozers, seven water tenders, nine helicopters and 52 fire engines.

“That’s a huge number,” Emetaz said of the fire engines.

The crews are focused on protecting private structures and other valuable assets such as cattle, rangeland, agricultural and recreational areas.

They faced challenges with wind throughout the day Wednesday and expect that to continue Thursday with gusts up to 35 mph in the forecast. Those conditions limit firefighting options, fire operations chief Aaron Rowe said Wednesday at a 2 p.m. news conference. Firefighters generally try to reduce risk of injury by attacking the fire from the back and flanking around it as it spreads rapidly through grasses and brush, he said.

“Wind provides an added caution to when the firefighters are there because we can’t really get around in the front of it, basically,” he said. “It’s just going to have an added effect on how we can effectively control the fire.”

More help is on the way. Northwest team 12 Incident Commander Bob Shindelar said the arrival of additional resources over the next few days could double the number of people working on the fire. Fires raging throughout the West could limit the help available for the Evans Canyon Fire. But Shindelar said it should elevate in priority for the Northwest region on Thursday, which should lead to more resources.

Yakima County Emergency Management Director Tony Miller said the Yakima County Sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement officials throughout the state arrived to create barricades and close down roads.

Miller also apologized for some glitches in the Wireless Emergency Alert System, a new tool to replace Alert Yakima. Many Yakima County residents erroneously received an evacuation message on their mobile phones late Tuesday night.

“We’re working through those issues with the agencies that run those,” Miller said. “Sorry for the inconvenience for anybody that got that, but we’d rather get more alerts out than not enough to make sure everybody got out of the danger of the fire.”

State Fair Park in Yakima has opened its RV parking for those displaced and has stable space for animals. It is free to evacuees and open to people and all kinds of animals, Kramer said.

“If we run out of space, we won’t turn anyone away,” she said. “We’ll tie them up to a tree or to a fencepost, and I’ve always had that philosophy. We don’t care if they’re four-legged, they’re feathers, even if they slither we’ll take their animals because I can’t imagine being in the perils of a fire. And we’re so fortunate that we have these assets and we can respond to the community.”

Mission Ridge says Chelan County is delaying its development plans

WENATCHEE — Mission Ridge Ski & Board Resort has filed an $8 million claim with Chelan County alleging it has been trying to delay or prevent development plans.

The resort, owned by Tamarack Saddle, alleges in a July claim of damages that the county has been conspiring to prevent the company’s environmental assessment from being approved. The claim names groups like the Wenatchee Sportsman’s Association, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

“There’s multiple issues of whether it’s being done fairly, properly and timely,” said Josh Jorgensen, Mission Ridge general manager. “There are quite a few things that are concerning for us.”

The claim was filed with the county in July. Jorgensen said he couldn’t get into too many specifics as lawyers are involved. The company filed its application to expand the resort on April 23, 2018, according to the claim.

A claim is often filed before a lawsuit.

County staff issued a determination of significance in May when doing an environmental review of the Mission Ridge master planned resort application, according to county documents. A determination of significance means a full environmental report needs to be made and Mission Ridge may need to mitigate for anything from environmental to cultural impacts.

According to the update letter issued on Monday about the environmental analysis, the county is looking at some of the following:

  • Potential geohazards, such as landslides
  • Whether there will be enough groundwater for a resort
  • Impacts to plants and animals, in particular elk and mule deer

The resort’s expansion would be a 500-acre addition with more lifts and areas for skiing, a lodge, an outdoor summer concert venue, 621 condominiums, townhouses, duplexes and 275 single-family dwellings, according to news sources and county documents.

The claim of damages Mission Ridge filed includes:

  • Land value — $6,000,000
  • Legal counsel — $77,105
  • Planning — $119,201
  • Resort design — $151,274
  • Environmental consulting — $332,638
  • Engineering — $65,837
  • Geotechnical — $73,183
  • Staff time — $341,625

The Forest Service is also conducting an environmental review. A draft environmental assessment was filed in February, according to the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest’s website.

The ski resort would like to build new ski facilities on Forest Service land using its existing special permit and build road access through Forest Service land, according to the draft assessment. The direct impact on Forest Service lands would be to about 1,090 acres, but the Forest Service expanded its assessment to include potential indirect impacts.

According to the draft assessment, there are several wildlife species within the area that might be affected including:

  • Cascade red fox
  • Pileated woodpeckers
  • American martens
  • Flammulated owl
  • Western toad
  • White-headed woodpecker
  • Bats
  • The Northern Spotted Owl
  • The gray wolf
  • Wolverines

The assessment did not find that any of these species would be greatly impacted by the expansion.

One of the concerns in regards to the expansion is the impact on Canadian lynx, a federally threatened species, as there is about 32 acres of lynx habitat at risk, according to the draft assessment. Development would reduce habitat for snow hares, depriving lynx of a food source. Skiing would also compact the snow, benefiting the lynx’s competitors, bobcats and coyotes.

The draft assessment says development may, but will likely not affect Canadian lynx, according to the draft assessment.

As for elk, the development would increase low quality elk habitat from 50% to 52% in the project area. Disturbances could alter elk movement, but the animals are highly mobile and capable of finding different routes. The project shouldn’t impact their population numbers, according to the assessment.

Also according to the draft assessment, the proposed expansion:

  • Would not impact water systems with proper buffers. No fish-bearing perennial streams are in the area.
  • Could have some impact on whitebark pine, a sensitive species, but it would be minor.
  • Would be consistent with fire management plans as the expansion would remove trees in areas in need of forest treatment. The area is already at a high risk for fire because of a lack of treatment.

Health district received fewer positive test results than expected in Bridgeport

BRIDGEPORT — A smaller percentage of people in Bridgeport tested positive for COVID-19 this week than health officials expected.

Officials were looking into whether Bridgeport was a COVID-19 hotspot when the decision was made to offer free testing, said Bruce Buckles, Chelan-Douglas Health District interim administrator. Initial testing of 32 individuals in Bridgeport identified a 30% positive rate, said Rachel Noll, Incident Management Team spokesperson. But only three out of 303 —less than 1 percent — came back positive with COVID-19 after a push to test the entire town.

“Unfortunately this excursion up in Bridgeport was a real zinger to the hypothesis that it could have been a hot spot,” Buckles said.

People should still be cautious, though, in assuming the presence of COVID-19 in the Bridgeport community, as it is a limited portion of the town, Noll said. The testing was voluntary and many people chose not to be tested.

Health officials also ran into some other challenges after the testing was completed, Buckles said. Staff were unable to contact the three people who did test positive. The individuals did not give accurate phone numbers.

The Chelan-Douglas Health District also found out after testing that it is required to contact all the people who did not test positive, Buckles said.

“We didn’t know that until (Monday) in the afternoon,” he said. “Yeah, so we have 300 and some folks to call and we have to figure that out and get some temporary staffing in.”

They also needed to get some bilingual staff to call, because almost all of the people tested had Hispanic surnames, Buckles said.

Buckles said, people were afraid to get tested for many reasons, including:

  • Fear that it would impact their job
  • Fear of health care workers
  • Fear of government officials

“They don’t know what’s involved and fear can be a powerful thing,” he said.