Gov. Jay Inslee is seeking federal disaster aid after a record-setting wildfire season that killed three firefighters and critically injured a fourth, destroyed at least 146 homes and damaged an additional 476 residences.
Washington’s worst fire season on record killed three firefighters and critically injured a fourth, destroyed at least 146 homes and damaged an additional 476 residences — at least two-thirds of which had little or no insurance.
That grim tally of destruction — detailed in a letter sent by Gov. Jay Inslee this week to President Obama that requests a federal disaster proclamation and recovery aid — provides the state’s first comprehensive accounting to date of the damage wrought by wildfires that burned across more than 1 million acres in Washington since June 1.
“The people of Washington state are resilient, but at the same time, their governments’ resources can only go so far,” Inslee said in a statement Wednesday, when announcing his aid requests. “Federal assistance will help enormously in getting our friends, neighbors and communities on the road to recovery.”
Inslee’s office also separately requested this week a federal-disaster designation and recovery aid for an Aug. 29 windstorm that whipped across Washington with “near-hurricane force” gusts from 35 to 80 mph. That storm downed trees that damaged homes, roads and other property and knocked out power to nearly 500,000 homes and businesses, according to Inslee’s letter.
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Inslee’s formal requests to the president, sent through the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s regional office, provide in-depth details of both catastrophes that collectively make the state’s case for why FEMA should grant assistance money to local governments and individual home- and business owners.
By the numbers, the state’s 1,541 wildfires in 2015 — including 1,084 human-caused blazes and 457 lightning caused fires — have cost an estimated $319.6 million to fight, Inslee reported.
A group of fires in northeast Washington known as the Okanogan complex also became recognized as the largest blaze in state history, burning more than 522,920 acres. Nearly 11,500 firefighters and support personnel battled the blazes during peak fire activity, Inslee’s letter added.
For the fires, the state is requesting an unspecified amount for “public assistance” grants to help 13 counties and four federally recognized Indian tribes defray 75 percent of eligible costs of the emergency response, debris removal and repairs to roads, bridges, public utilities and other public infrastructure.
The state’s request also seeks “individual assistance” grants for affected residents, households and businesses in Chelan County, Okanogan County and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Such individual grants can provide funding to help subsidize a variety of expenses, including disaster housing, repairs to uninsured property, medical treatment, funerals and crisis counseling.
For the windstorm, Washington also seeks public-assistance grant money to help 11 counties and four tribes defray costs in the “millions of dollars,” Inslee’s letter said.
“This is now the largest windstorm on record for the month of August in Washington State,” the letter said.
Under federal law, FEMA considers a combination of factors when evaluating a state’s request for a major disaster declaration aimed to gauge an event’s severity, magnitude and impact.
In determining public-assistance grants, the agency assesses the impact of a disaster based on a per capita estimation of eligible costs. Individual assistance grants do “not necessarily have a hard-and-fast type of criteria for eligibility” but are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, said Ryan Ike, FEMA’s regional spokesman.
State requests for federal-disaster aid are not always approved.
After an unusually bad wildfire season this past year, Washington sought and obtained public-assistance grants to help offset local governments’ response costs. But a request for individual assistance was denied, said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Military Department, under which state emergency management officials prepare FEMA grant applications.
Should Washington receive individual-assistance grants this year, Shagren cautioned home- and business owners to “set expectations.” An average grant award is about $2,000, she said.
“If you’re an individual who lost your home, you’re not going to get enough money to buy a new home,” she said. “But it might cover damages to replace some appliances, help you with rent assistance, or repair a damaged roof.”
Inslee’s latest disaster-aid requests follow several recent disasters. Last year, FEMA declared five emergencies and disasters in Washington and provided more than $107 million in aid after the Oso mudslide and wildfires in the state.