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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Murray, Cantwell ask Biden to approve wildfire aid for Malden, Pine City; McMorris Rodgers sends separate letter

WASHINGTON – After months of waiting under the Trump administration, Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are asking President Joe Biden to swiftly authorize disaster assistance for residents of Malden and Pine City who have been left in the cold since a wildfire swept through their towns in September.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers sent Biden a letter of her own Friday afternoon. Spokesman Jared Powell said the Spokane Republican, whose district includes Malden and Pine City, was not contacted by the Democratic senators before they sent their letter Friday.

The three lawmakers asked Biden to approve requests Gov. Jay Inslee made in September and October to declare a major disaster, a move that would free up resources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies. Former President Donald Trump withheld the money to Whitman County and eight other Washington counties, a McMorris Rodgers aide said, over a personal beef with Inslee, a Democrat.

“The Trump administration refused to make a determination and as a result, has held our constituents hostage for 128 days,” the senators wrote. “This inaction by the former president and his administration is unconscionable and we look to you to right this wrong for our constituents.”

Murray spokesman Charlie Andrews said the senator’s office had been in contact with White House staff about Inslee’s requests and opted to send a letter with only the senators’ signatures to move quickly, knowing there is strong support in the entire delegation.

In her letter, McMorris Rodgers congratulated Biden on his inauguration and promised to work with his administration to get aid to the Whitman County towns and other communities affected by last year’s devastating fire season.

“While we may have policy differences along the way, I am committed to finding common ground when possible so we can get results for people in my district and all Americans,” she wrote. “I implore you to approve this request as soon as possible to help get relief to these Americans who badly need it.”

Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said the governor has not personally spoken with White House staff since Biden took office Wednesday, but Inslee’s staff in D.C. are working with federal partners to bring the requests to the new administration’s attention.

“We expect to make a strong push for this with the Biden administration in the near future,” Faulk wrote in an email.

Major disaster declarations can make two types of aid available: individual assistance to provide temporary housing and cover other costs for disaster victims, and public assistance to reimburse states for debris cleanup and other costs. Inslee requested both kinds of aid for Whitman County on Sept. 16 and made a more limited request Oct. 8 for public assistance to Douglas, Franklin, Kittitas, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Skamania and Yakima counties.

Trump declared 22 major disasters after Sept. 7, when the Babb Fire destroyed roughly 80% of homes in the small towns at the north end of Whitman County. Some of his declarations were issued within 48 hours of a disaster, while others took months, but Inslee’s was the longest-pending request as of Wednesday, Trump’s last day in office.

Separate from Inslee’s requests, FEMA approved 10 grants to help fight fires in Washington, but that funding cannot be used for rebuilding or temporary housing in the wake of the disasters.

Scott Hokonson, who leads an organization of Malden and Pine City residents working to rebuild their communities in the absence of federal help, said his group has been in close contact with Inslee’s office and its federal partners.

“To have the governor and federal delegation members working on this the first day that Biden is in office is very heartening,” Hokonson said. “We’re just waiting, and it’s been a long time. It would be really great if we could get an answer.”

The state’s entire congressional delegation previously sent three letters to Trump in September, October and December in support of Inslee’s requests. McMorris Rodgers sent another letter to Trump on Dec. 31 with a final, ultimately unsuccessful plea to approve the aid.

In their separate letters, McMorris Rodgers and the senators highlighted the devastation in Malden while calling on the president to approve the requested aid to all nine counties.

“Most of Malden’s 300-some residents are under- or uninsured and are also grappling with the strenuous economic burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Murray and Cantwell wrote.

“These residents cannot wait any longer.”

The White House did not immediately respond to questions about Biden’s plans.

Reporter Emma Epperly contributed to this story.