OLYMPIA – Eastern Washington’s historic wildfires destroyed at least 146 homes and damaged more than 470 others this summer, but losses were not severe enough to get federal aid for individual residents, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.
The decision prompted members of Congress to call for FEMA to revise its criteria for a program known as Individual Assistance, which they believe is weighted against rural victims of wildfires.
In a letter received late Thursday by Gov. Jay Inslee, FEMA rejected the state’s request for Individual Assistance, a program that would have helped burned-out homeowners with some of their costs of finding temporary shelter and replacing losses.
“It’s not enough to rebuild your house. But when you’ve lost everything, every little bit helps,” said Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee.
Karina Shagren, of the state Military Department that oversees Emergency Management, said the maximum benefit for a homeowner in Washington would have been about $33,000, and the average payment about $3,000. Other states have also been denied individual assistance for recent wildfires, she said.
“Wildfires are tough,” Shagren said. “They’re looking at the concentration of damage, which is difficult to show in rural Washington.”
The state sought Individual Assistance for Chelan, Okanogan and Stevens counties as well as the Colville Confederated Tribes, which were among the areas hardest hit by a series of wildfires that scorched more than 1 million acres in Washington over the summer months.
“Based on our review of all of the information available … it has been determined that the impact to individuals and households from this event was not of the severity and magnitude to warrant the designation of Individual Assistance” under FEMA regulations, Elizabeth Zimmerman, associate administrator of the Office of Response and Recovery, wrote in the letter denying the aid.
Cam Rossie, spokeswoman for FEMA, said Friday the agency has several criteria for approving Individual Assistance, including the concentration of the damage, the extent of the trauma and whether large numbers of homeowners have some insurance. Federal law doesn’t allow the aid to duplicate what insurance covers, whether the disaster is a wildfire, a hurricane or a flood, she said.
“The criteria remain the same, regardless of the type of incident,” Rossie said.
It’s not impossible for victims of a wildfire to get Individual Assistance, she said. California was recently approved for Individual Assistance for that state’s wildfires.
Individual Assistance is just one of several types of federal disaster aid. During the fires, FEMA provided a dozen fire management grants and other assistance to help with firefighting. Recently, the agency approved Public Assistance, which helps local governments and tribes recoup 75 percent of some wildfire costs and damages, for those three counties and the Colville tribe, as well as Ferry, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Whatcom and Yakima counties. But it denied Public Assistance for other Eastern Washington counties and tribes hit by wildfires.
Inslee and members of the congressional delegation who supported the aid said they were disappointed by the decision.
“Clearly, FEMA’s criteria must be updated to ensure those in rural communities are not denied the help they need,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Republican who represents much of the fire-ravaged area in Congress.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Yakima Republican whose Central Washington district also was hard-hit, said he, too, will urge FEMA to re-evaluate criteria “because this is not the first time that Individual Assistance has been denied after a catastrophic fire season.”
The state’s Democratic senators also were critical of the decision. Sen. Maria Cantwell said she was working on a wildfire reform bill to look at the effects of such a disaster on the regional economy, not housing density. Sen. Patty Murray was “committed to exploring all options” and working with Inslee’s staff on next steps, a spokeswoman said.
FEMA also denied a request for Individual Assistance for last year’s wildfires, which burned fewer total acres but destroyed about twice as many homes. In 2014, state officials appealed that denial and supplied additional information about damages and cost estimates, but the decision stood. Smith said there’s no decision yet whether the state will appeal this year.
Inslee is part of a group of Western states governors asking the federal government to re-evaluate the Individual Assistance criteria for wildfires after denials in Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and Oregon as well as Washington. Those denials have “impacted recovery in many Western states,” the governors said in a policy resolution approved last December.
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