The Federal Emergency Management Agency ought to rethink its decision to deny individual emergency assistance to residents of Okanogan County, where the biggest wildfire in state history has brought hardship on communities and has forced many to seek shelter miles away.
Some 300 homes in the rural Eastern Washington county were destroyed after lightning strikes in July touched off fires that roared through the Methow Valley and swept across the grasslands to the east. A month later crews are in mop-up mode, and evidence of the disaster remains in blackened earth and charred foundations where houses once stood.
The Pateros area lost about a quarter of its housing stock, and many who were burned out have sought refuge in far-away communities in Chelan County, says Okanogan Sheriff Frank Rogers. Farms were burned, cattle killed. The state estimates private property losses at $28 million, some 42 to 45 percent of it uninsured. Says Rogers, “I don’t know how these people are going to rebuild.”
Federal programs might be able to help, and the state became eligible when President Obama declared an emergency. But FEMA, while offering disaster assistance to public agencies, last week declined a request from Gov. Jay Inslee for grant, loan and public-assistance programs for individuals. Sketchy official explanations indicate the agency is dubious about the severity and magnitude of the damage. State officials are gathering more information to file an appeal, and members of the Washington congressional delegation sent a letter urging the agency to reconsider.
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What FEMA needs to understand is that sparsely populated Okanogan County is nothing like a metropolitan area singed around the edges by a fire. Communities are separated by many miles. Alternative housing in many cases is not available, and as winter approaches many will be forced to drive an hour or more for jobs and school. It will take much work to get the county back on its feet. This is why disaster aid exists in the first place.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).