Chehalis City Council Passes Building Code Update Without Controversial Sprinkler Mandate

Decision: Sprinklers Still Likely to Be a Requirement on Projects With Low Fire Flow


The Chehalis City Council this week passed updates to its building code as required by Washington state law but left out a controversial provision that would have required sprinklers to be installed on nearly all new residential construction projects within city limits.

Municipalities are required to update the codes in order to ensure the city is staying up to date with current industry practices and standards.

The council at Tuesday night’s regular business meeting voted 4-2 to pass the building code with exemptions to the sprinkler mandate, portions of the international wildland code and optional text in the International Existing Building Code and International Property Maintenance Code for maintenance clarification and further flexibility.

Councilors Daryl Lund and Jerry Lord were the two dissenting votes.

Tammy Baraconi, planning and building manager for the City of Chehalis, laid out the changes in a presentation prior to the vote.

New building projects within areas that are prone to wildland fires could be subject to restrictions on certain building structures, according to the new International Wildland and Urban Interface Code. The city will adopt portions of the new code since it’s currently waiting on guidance from the state Department of Natural Resources on implementation.

The fire code was also amended to reflect that sprinklers are not required for single-family homes or duplexes except as mitigation in areas without sufficient fire flow, though Baraconi said builders could demonstrate mitigation by other means, including by way of water reserves or by installing a fire hydrant.

“There are some other options, but they start going up in price,” Baraconi said, adding that the easiest mitigation — and, sometimes, cheapest — is installing a sprinkler system.

But, to date, insufficient fire flow within city limits only impacts a very small area of the city.

“We have very few areas in the city that have very inadequate fire flow or no fire flow,” Chehalis Fire Marshal Rick Mack told The Chronicle, noting that in the urban growth area fire flow reliability is about 50 percent covered.

Mack said the city roughly defines “insufficient fire flow” as any discharge of about 500 gallons per minute or less. It can sometimes be a judgement call, though.

The most troublesome spot is out east and uphill of Jackson Highway, near the end of city services, Mack said, where waterflow struggles against gravity. Flow is also weak near the end of Prospect Avenue.

“The challenge is when we move up to the south and to the east, we start to run into these challenges where we don’t have enough fire flow. For the last 10 years I’ve been serving in this capacity, we’ve utilized fire sprinklers less than a dozen times between the city and the UGA to mitigate (flow),” he said.

Separately, square footage also comes into play as a variable when considering fire mitigation. Mack said any houses with a square footage of 3,600 feet or less requires at least 1,000 gallons per minute of flow for a period of two hours, though with any building larger than that the flow requirement jumps up to 1,750 gallons.

“It recognizes that more building materials, larger homes (lead to) potentially larger fires,” he said.

Prior to the council’s vote on the building code updates, Lord attempted to amend the motion to eliminate the optional provisions within the International Property Maintenance code that were recommended to adopt. It had to do with nuisance buildings.

“It seems to me all the regulations they want to change have already been changed. If we need to change the nuisance code to say we want to be able to go into a structure that has infestation, we should just change that rule instead of adding this additional book of rules that property owners need to adjust,” he said.

The amendment failed 5-1.

Lund told The Chronicle he ultimately voted against the ordinance to adopt the building codes because adopting the international wildland code without guided implementation from the DNR could create some confusion with staff down the line.

“We’re not in wildfire California area. Show me houses in the UGA that have a bunch of forest land and wildlife stuff. It ain’t there,” Lund said.

He said he also is against  implementing sprinklers in lieu of insufficient fire flow. They’re costly, for both developers and insurers, he said.

“It’s just an uncalled for burden,” Lund said.