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Washington’s rural communities could receive more federal dollars to recover from wildfires

By Crystal Duan Correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Rural communities devastated by wildfires but left without federal recovery dollars would receive help under a new bill introduced this week by Sen. Patty Murray.

The Rural Disaster Recovery Act is a response to wildfires throughout Washington in 2014 and 2015. Some who lost housing could not get funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I was hearing a number of issues with how federal policy today doesn’t work for rural communities,” Murray said. She talked to mayors, ranchers and others throughout Washington and concluded “people aren’t able to get the help they needed.”

The legislation would create or expand programs to help provide housing and recovery to communities by increasing the federal reimbursement rate. It would ensure that Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funds are available and expand farm and ranch recovery programs.

In 2015 alone, wildfires burned more than 1 million acres and destroyed more than 145 homes in Washington.

Murray has spent the last few months interviewing various recovery groups around the state, assessing the need for new legislation. One issue is FEMA cannot accurately measure the scope of damage from wildfires that go on for months.

“One of the things we found is the way recovery programs are written hasn’t changed since the early 1980s,” Murray said. “They weren’t addressing remote rural communities that have lost a few houses, which were not enough to qualify for the FEMA program. But we’re rewriting how we do this to make sure the federal program is there for you wherever you are.”

Recovery groups throughout Washington have used private donations to help residents.

“The problem is communities here tend to be widely dispersed, while other disasters such as hurricanes will hit a whole town,” said Lael Duncan, executive director of the Okanogan County Community Action Council.

The legislation would provide money to hire more disaster case managers to help with the recovery planning process.

Jon Wyss, chairman of the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group, said limitations on federal aid for fence-building also would be modified if this legislation passes. Programs such as the Emergency Conservation Program allow farmers and ranchers to apply for assistance on a cost-shared basis, but limit it to $100,000, which could only rebuild 8 miles of fence.

If the bill is successful, the limit could rise to $500,000, which could help up to 70 percent more people, he said.

Murray introduced the legislation with three months left in Congress’ two-year session. If it does not pass, she will try again next session.

“Natural disasters happen in every state,” Wyss said, adding the bill would fix problems in the federal relief programs they found after wildfire hit.

Crystal Duan, a student in the University of Missouri Washington Reporting Program, works as an intern for The Spokesman-Review.

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