After a second-straight wildfire season that set records for destruction, Gov. Jay Inslee’s request for FEMA aid again has been turned down.
OLYMPIA — Despite the destruction of 146 homes in this past summer’s wildfires, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has denied an aid request from Gov. Jay Inslee to help homeowners rebuild in Chelan and Okanogan counties and on the Colville Indian Reservation.
Had Inslee’s request been approved, the assistance could have provided help with rent, repairs to homes and the replacement of household items for communities ravaged by this summer’s record-setting blazes.
In a statement, Inslee called the development “very disappointing news.”
“This is the second time in as many years that we’ve been denied individual assistance following a major fire,” the governor said in the statement, referring to a similar decision by FEMA in 2014 regarding the Carlton complex fire, which burned in the same region. “We have homeowners that have lost everything. Despite the decision, I’m committed to helping our fellow Washingtonians and ensuring they get as much help and assistance as possible.”
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The governor’s office hasn’t decided whether it will appeal the decision, according to spokeswoman Jaime Smith. An appeal of FEMA’s decision denying individual assistance after the Carlton complex fire was unsuccessful.
The fires this year damaged 476 homes and destroyed 146, nearly two-thirds of which were underinsured or uninsured, according to the statement.
In its letter to Inslee, FEMA wrote that “the impact to individuals and households from this event was not of the severity and magnitude to warrant” an approval for individual assistance.
Factors in determining the granting of individual assistance include whether there is insurance, the extent and concentration of damage and the amount of other agency aid, according to Cam Rossie, spokeswoman for FEMA.
The concentration and extent of damage, according to Rossie, is one aspect that sets the wildfires apart from a disaster like the Oso landslide, which did prompt individual assistance from the government.
In that case, 43 people died “and basically an entire community slid down a hill,” she said.
By law, FEMA cannot duplicate aid to homes that are insured, Rossie said.
FEMA has approved federal aid to eight counties and the Colville Confederated Tribes to rebuild public infrastructure — such as bridges, roads and public utilities — in the wake of the fires, and the agency continues to have a field officer working on the disaster response, according to Rossie.
But, “we’re not always the best option for recovery,” she said.
An average individual-assistance grant amounts to about $2,000, the state Department of Military has said.
The number of and impact of large wildfires in the Western United States are expected to grow for a variety of reasons, including past wildland management policies, the consequences of climate change, insufficient fire-prevention funding, and more people living in wildland areas.
The Western Governors’ Association, a bipartisan organization that includes the governors of 19 Western states, last year issued a resolution urging, among other things, that the federal government reconsider how it designates individual assistance.
Federal agencies should “better provide homeowners and renters the aid they need to recover from wildfires … that are increasingly affecting Western states,” read the resolution.
Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said in the governor’s statement that “by refusing to help, FEMA is letting down communities that are in desperate need of assistance.”
“As a native of Okanogan County, it is hard to overstate the heartbreak and the suffering the people of Northeast Washington have gone through the past two fire seasons,” Goldmark added.
Inslee also announced a new Wildland Fire Council to “coordinate restoration and recovery efforts” and “assess plans, policies and resources related to wildfire preparedness, resiliency, response and recovery in Washington state,” according to the statement.
Goldmark will be one of three leading the council, which will meet in early November and complete a preliminary report by July.
The state Department of Commerce is directing some grant funding to affected cities and counties for “emergency facilities, water system improvements, and disaster recovery services,” according to the statement.
While it’s too early to forecast next year’s level of fire risk, weather patterns suggest another winter without much snow, which could lead to dry conditions and wildfires, according to Sandra Kaiser, spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources.