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Terri Cooper, mayor of Medical Lake, chairs the Spokane Region Long Term Recovery Group meeting Thursday at the Red Cross building in Spokane. Following the Gray and Oregon Road fires, Spokane County created a long-term recovery group. This nonprofit entity is just getting started but is expected to be key to the recovery efforts.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

‘Here for the long haul’: How the Spokane Region Long Term Recovery Group formed to help residents after the Gray, Oregon Road fires

Everyone knows governments move slowly.

But in disasters, the needs of those affected don’t wait, whether it’s housing assistance, food, debris cleanup or navigating the endless barrage of paperwork. Families who lost their homes in the Gray and Oregon Road fires need and want more help than governments can give.

That’s why area leaders founded Spokane Region Long Term Recovery Group, a nonprofit that will be the liaison between government agencies, other nonprofits, volunteers and those impacted by the fires.

These types of groups are a common part of recovery from natural disasters across the country. Most recently in Eastern Washington, the Pine Creek Long Term Recovery group was founded to help the communities of Malden and Pine City recover from the Babb Road Fire in 2020.

The group has 12 board members, with Medical Lake Mayor Terri Cooper serving as president and Dick Ziehnert, longtime Elk resident and farmer, as vice president. Board members cannot have lost their home in the fire.

While the long-term recovery group will move faster than most government programs, it takes time to get things organized, Cooper said.

“Things are moving at the speed of government, not at the speed of what people need,” Cooper said.

The group has had less than a handful of meetings but has established subcommittees for each fire and already dispersed funds raised for fire victims through the Innovia Foundation.

The two fires are being handled as one disaster in an effort to open up more funding sources due to the size of the combined loss.

“It brings in the heavy hitters to help with restoration,” Ziehnert said. “So we embraced the idea of keeping it a combined crisis.”

How it works

Spokane County has hired case workers through the Salvation Army who began calling uninsured fire victims registered with the county.

Those case workers will schedule initial meetings to hear about what each family lost, where they’re currently living and their needs.

Then, they’ll prioritize those unmet needs and begin creating a specialized recovery plan.

The case workers will serve as liaisons to the recovery group. They’ll connect them with other relevant services and help solve problems.

This type of system helps prevent fire victims from having to tell their stories multiple times to different agencies and can limit paperwork to entities from which people have a high likelihood of receiving aid.

Eventually, there will be weekly meetings of an unmet needs roundtable for each fire, where case workers will meet with recovery group members, Innovia and other nonprofits and volunteer groups.

The case worker will bring forward a need, for example, to help get a new transformer installed after cleanup has been done or, further along in the process, a struggle to purchase new appliances for a freshly built home.

Then the entities at the round table will discuss who can best meet that need – it can be a nonprofit, a government grant or money directly from Innovia’s Wildfire Emergency Response Fund, which had raised over $1.1 million as of early this month.

Jeanna Swanson, director of New Hope Resource Center in the Elk area, was a bit bashful at a meeting earlier this month asking for more money to help get utilities set up for residents affected by the Oregon Road fire.

Cooper was more straightforward: “Do you need an additional $10,000 knowing that that’s likely going to be a problem?”

“Yes,” Swanson said, blushing. “I didn’t expect it to be this easy. I’m sorry. Thank you. I’m overwhelmed.”

“If it was my sewer that needed to be hooked up, I’d want it today,” Cooper said, drawing laughs from the rest of the committee.

About 30 seconds later, the group voted and the money was distributed.

Different communities, common problems

While resources will initially be focused on the uninsured, there are a large number of residents of the Elk and Medical Lake areas who are underinsured.

“People are having to build back smaller, half the house they had before because they can’t afford to do it any other way,” Cooper said.

Those people could get case managers if enough funding is available.

According to Spokane County, of the 582 intake forms they have received, 251 had insurance, 123 were underinsured, 105 were uninsured and 103 have an unverified insurance status.

The goal of the recovery group is to help get people back to where they were before the fire.

In Elk, that has presented a unique challenge with the people who sought the area for its large plots of rural land, Ziehnert said.

Ziehnert, 72, has lived in the area his whole life and runs Darilane Farms with his family. He spent years volunteering in the area, from serving on the Riverside School Board, to being a Sunday school teacher, to serving on Inland Power and Light’s board of directors.

He joined the long-term recovery group board to help restore his community.

The current goal is to get his neighbors through the next few frigid months.

“We’re trying to get the people to successfully survive the winter,” Ziehnert said. “There’s really hardly any hope that they can build anything before winter.”

One of the biggest struggles so far has been getting a hold of some residents, many of whom don’t want help, he said.

“It’s incredibly hard, and these guys are cautious,” he said.

However, the more people who register, the more aid that opens up, Ziehnert said.

Eight years ago, Gerri Johnson and her sister, Cooper, looked around the town they grew up in and noted the need for more community.

They founded ReImagine Medical Lake, a nonprofit that focused on economic and community development. They began hosting community events like winter and fall festivals, which they hoped would provide an opportunity for young families to do something fun for free.

Medical Lake is unique, with the population about equally spread between the young, middle-aged and elderly, Cooper said.

That foundation of community connection was essential when the fire broke out, Johnson said.

“Never did we imagine a disaster recovery would be in our future,” Johnson said.

Immediately after the fire started, Johnson received phone calls from friends and neighbors asking how they could help.

“My phone started ringing when the fire was still burning with people who said, ‘Gerri, I’m going to be there. I want to help. I want to do something,’ ” she said.

Shortly after the fire, Johnson created an impromptu space at her store, Farm Salvation, in downtown Medical Lake. She gave out food, clothes and other supplies for about five weeks, all donated from area residents.

It has been a steep curve learning how to help manage recovery equitably, Johnson said.

People who lost their homes are feeling great one day and horrible the next, she said.

“They’re in such trauma,” she said.

Some of the biggest challenges are the extra costs like gas to drive from North Spokane or Spokane Valley where people are now living back to Medical Lake to do business, she said. The cost of winterizing RVs and propane is also a concern for those living on their properties.

ReImagine Medical Lake is taking monetary donations and gas and grocery gift cards, along with helping register volunteers .

Everyone agrees that recovery from a natural disaster doesn’t happen overnight. For Elk and Medical Lake, it will be a yearslong process for many people.

Johnson has a simple message: “We are for you. We are with you. And we are here for the long haul.”