Driving through the remains of Medical Lake, State Farm insurance agent Clyde Gillespie has spent his time since fire engulfed much of his town personally handing out checks to nearly 100 homeowners covered by State Farm.
As federal relief remains far away and immediate assistance appears difficult to obtain, personal homeowners insurance remains one of the few stopgaps for fire victims who lost everything and were lucky enough to have insurance.
For a resident of Medical Lake like Gillespie, overseeing the damage and continuing to do his job has been difficult.
“These are my friends. Friends who have lost their homes. You go from living comfortably and all of life’s conveniences overnight,” Gillespie whispered in an interview, suddenly trying to fight back tears. “The only way I’ve sort of been able to help is to deliver those checks to at least get them a start. I hope I’ve done what I can.”
More than 700 structures have been destroyed over the past two weeks between the Gray and Oregon Road fires in Spokane County. Claims numbering 128 have been made to State Farm just in Medical Lake – including from 96 homeowner or rental policies and 32 auto insurance policies.
For each of those claims, Gillespie dropped off an initial check in the thousands of dollars to allow families to pay for the essentials – temporary housing, food and other supplies. Another payment will come in the next two weeks after an adjuster makes an assessment of the burned home.
“Their job is first to verify the loss,” Gillespie said. “And then they work to put together estimates for replacement. And then working with the customers to inventory their personal property and other things so that they can get payments made.”
According to Gillespie, those he insures will get approximately 50% of their policy coverage “early on in the rebuilding process.” The goal is to “make them whole” with a new home built where the old one burned down. A similar process should be in place for other home insurance companies involved in the rebuilding process.
“Each company has their nuances, but generally that’s why we have insurance. People generally buy insurance so when something like this happens they are made whole,” Gillespie said.
It is the beginning of a long process. Few adjusters had surveyed fire debris by the end of last week – meaning nearly all of the fire debris remains on the property of homeowners who lost everything.
“We’re not even two weeks into a year-and-a-half process to get everything rebuilt,” he said of those insured by State Farm.
It will be an even longer process for fire victims without homeowners insurance.
“There are some disaster funds. Unfortunately, there will be some people that were not insured or not properly insured. State Farm cannot extend insurance to anyone without a policy. So we’ll be looking for opportunities to help them as a community,” he said, pointing to the possibility of Federal Emergency Management Agency aid and funds raised by local nonprofit organizations in the wake of the fires.
Federal aid not a guarantee
At a Tuesday community meeting at Riverside High School near the Oregon Road fire, local leaders told fire victims long-term aid is far off and not guaranteed, especially if it would come from the federal government.
“If you’re not insured, you’re not going to be made whole by any government entity,” Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels told the crowd of several hundred residents of Elk and surrounding communities. “That’s just not going to happen, and I apologize for that. That is awful. But it is real, and I just think we should prepare you for that.”
Spokane County Emergency Services Deputy Director Chandra Fox echoed those sentiments at the meeting – saying she needed to “level set” and “manage expectations.”
“We don’t know if there will be individual assistance through the federal government,” she said. “We don’t know. The state will do the best that they can to make our case to the federal government. But there’s no guarantee that we’ll get it. And the level set here is, you’re not going to get a check to make you whole.”
Fox described any state or federal aid victims might receive as a “stop gap” that is “not designed” to bring someone back to their pre-incident status.
Residents at the meeting often sternly questioned the officials – stopping them at every point they outlined in the recovery or debris cleanup process and asking if it would cost them money. In most cases, leaders said the victims would need to pay out of pocket if they couldn’t get their private insurance to cover it.
But victims at the meeting also expressed gratitude to the officials for being truthful.
“Thank you for being honest with us,” one woman yelled after Nowels told them they would not be made whole by any government assistance.
Kim Huff and her husband lost their home in the fire. Though admitting there was a “lot of anger” at the meeting, she found it “very informative.”
“It is what it is – the regulation. And it’s unfortunate there are so many costs we have to pay out-pocket.”
The Huffs’ home was “very well-insured,” and the couple feels confident they will rebuild.
“There’s no way we would be able to do anything without insurance. Without the insurance we have, we would be lost,” Huff said in an interview.
Fox said the total individual assistance from different levels of government is “most times less than $10,000” if it arrives.
“Disaster assistance can be really, really complex. And it’s not fast. As soon as something happens, people start asking, ‘Where’s FEMA? Where’s my FEMA money?’ And that’s just not how the system is set up to work,” she said after the meeting.
By the end of this past week, all joint preliminary damage assessments of debris in both fires should be completed by state and federal agencies. The data from these assessments will be used by the state to create an application for FEMA aid, which needs to be submitted within 30 days of the disaster.
If approved, aid will be distributed in two streams – one for local government that sustained damage on public infrastructure and another for individualized aid for those whose property was destroyed. Individual assistance is dependent on need – meaning those without insurance likely would be front of the line.
According to Fox, the state’s intent is to submit its relief application by mid-September. Then the state will draft a longer application narrative explaining the fires and its impact on those living in Spokane County. That goes to the governor for approval, then to FEMA Region 10 located in Seattle.
After they review, FEMA may make requests for modification of additional information. After being approved by the regional office, it will go to FEMA headquarters and be reviewed before being submitted to the White House. The president has the sole authority to approve FEMA aid.
“All these levels of approval takes time. It could take two weeks, it could take two months. It’s not a speedy process,” Fox said.
That presidential discretion came to the fore in 2020 when Washington’s last wildfire disaster razed to the ground over 80% of homes in Malden, a small town in Whitman County.
Approval of aid for those affected by the tragedy was stalled for more than a year by then-President Donald Trump. The delay was an apparent tactic in a long-standing partisan feud between Trump and Washington’s Democratic governor, Jay Inslee.
Aid was eventually approved a month into the Biden administration, but by then the residents of Malden had “suffered a lot more than just the fire,” said Gerry Bozarth, who oversaw the Malden cleanup and now works for Spokane County emergency management.
“The delay was very, very unfortunate, and there was a lot of players that tried to get the president to move on that. And for whatever reason, the president at the time did not move, move on that and, and sign it, and chose to let it lie dormant. And so it was unfortunate, because, those people needed help, sooner than later,” he said, noting the state stepped up to provide aid in the meantime. “A disaster absolutely, positively should not be a political piece in any way, shape or form, because people are suffering.”
Bozarth said he does not expect the same political calculations in the case of the current disaster in Spokane County.
“The Biden administration has made it clear that it doesn’t matter if you’re a blue state or a red state,” he said. “If you qualify for federal aid, he is going to support FEMA’s recommendation.”
But Bozarth’s experience with Malden has emphasized the general slow-going nature of disaster recovery.
“If Malden is any indication – I mean, we are three years in, almost, and we’re just now getting things like the community center and the fire station being rebuilt. And there are many people who have not been able to rebuild what they’ve lost. It takes years to recover, and no one understands that until they’ve really been through it.”
Many hurdles before fire cleanup can begin
One of the first parts of the recovery process to the Gray and Oregon Road fires is cleaning up the sites where homes and other structures burned to the ground. There are also many bureaucratic requirements to be followed in cleaning up fire debris in a safe manner that might not be immediately obvious. Almost no debris had been cleared as of the end of last week.
Before debris from any burned homes can be disturbed, property owners must receive a demolition permit from the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency. Fees usually associated with this permit are waived for fire victims. Then they must conduct an asbestos survey to ensure the dangerous building material is not on the property and inhaled in the cleanup. There may be exceptions to the requirement of an asbestos survey if the structure was not completely destroyed by the fire, but a survey will still be required in most instances. Even though asbestos was most routinely used in construction before the 1970s, homes just built this year must be checked for asbestos.
“There is no cutoff for asbestos. It is still legal. If the home was built in 1970 versus 2020, the requirement is the same,” Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency compliance inspector Derek Aubrey said in an interview.
Mining of asbestos is banned in the United States, but it is still legal to import the substance from the few countries on the globe where it remains legal. It is most commonly used today in roofing products.
An inspector contracted by the owner must be certified under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, or AHERA. They will take samples from the debris and test them for asbestos. This survey could cost hundreds of dollars out of pocket if homeowners insurance does not cover it.
At the community meeting at Riverside High , officials warned residents who lost their homes that asbestos being found on their property is very probable. If it is, the owners of the property who resided there cannot legally clean up the property themselves.
“There’s the potential for homeowners to abate their own material; we strongly advise that people contact an abatement company. But if the house is a complete loss, and it’s just ash … they may be allowed in some instances,” Aubrey said.
The Spokane Regional Health District has the same recommendation, but also had suggestions if homeowners opt to do it themselves.
“We are aware that people want to be resourceful, and they’re gonna keep looking to see if any of their possessions have survived the fire. We advise them to really study up on proper personal protection, respiratory protection, eye protection, long-sleeve clothing, and proper attire, and proceed cautiously,” health district specialist Mike LaScuola said in an interview.
“Leave it to a professional is our first recommendation. If you were to proceed, wear a tight-fitting and N95 dust mask or preferably a respirator. Wear good eye protection that actually wraps around the eyes. Wear naturally the proper footwear protected from puncture hazards, as well as steel-toed shoes. You need long pants and a long-sleeve shirt .”
Individuals should also spray the debris with water before disturbing it so material like ash or asbestos do not come up into the air during cleanup.
Another obstacle is chemicals from household cleaners, which can be disposed of at transfer stations if they are still recognizable, but can be dangerous to handle if leaking and mixing different chemicals in the air.
Nowels warned residents against haphazardly disposing of the debris to escape government regulations – noting that burying the debris would only contaminate the soil and create problems for the homeowner in the future.
Huff had not been aware of the need for an asbestos survey until attending the community meeting. She and her husband spent the rest of the week trying to get the survey done, to no avail.
“It’s been a process and a half,” she said Friday afternoon – hopeful she may be able to get it done in the new week. “We have a builder all lined up, but we need to do this first. It’s been very frustrating.”
Made up of flexible fibers resistant to heat, electricity or corrosion, asbestos can cause major medical complication in both short- and long-term situations. Inhalation of the substances causes both asbestosis, an immediate inflammation of the lungs, and mesothelioma, lung cancer that may not present itself until years after inhalation.
If asbestos is found on the property, the owner is required to contract a certified abatement company that will come to the property in hazmat suits with respirators, sort the debris, wrap it in bags and label it, then drive it to a landfill.
The Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency has a list of certified companies that do either the asbestos survey or abatement on the agency’s website, spokanecleanair.org. Costs for these services can be substantial if not covered by homeowners insurance.
“Price varies greatly depending on the individual structure and circumstance. We are not in a position to give – we don’t even really know what the cost will be,” Aubrey said, noting homeowners should get multiple quotes and compare companies to get the best price. He also stressed that in the wake of a natural disaster, many fraudsters flood the area promising fake or unqualified services to unsuspecting fire victims. Homeowners should select only from the dozens of companies listed on the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency website.
Because of the volume of houses in need of asbestos survey and abatement, many of these companies are expected to be backed up for many months, likely exacerbating the amount of time it takes to clear properties of fire debris.
Once debris from both fires is disposed of, it will find its final resting place at the Graham Road Landfill, a limited-purpose landfill near Medical Lake.
Wildfire debris going to Graham Road Landfill
Because of the toxic nature of the ash or asbestos debris, it cannot be deposited in the same landfill as regular garbage taken weekly from homes in Spokane County. The landfill at Graham Road is primarily used for construction or demolition debris, which has industrial waste and special waste like asbestos.
According to Northwest Waste Management spokesperson Jackie Lang, the Graham Road Landfill has not seen any uptake in disposal needs, likely because most of the fire debris hasn’t been cleared off. But in anticipation of that need, Waste Management has briefed employees at the landfill on procedures regarding fire debris and hired attentional temporary employees.
“We’re hearing that people are anxious to get this moving,” Lang said in an interview. “We understand this is a difficult situation, and we want to do our very best to help.”
To deposit fire debris at the landfill also costs money. According to the Waste Management website, it will cost homeowners $12.25 per cubic yard of debris. The price jumps to $50.40 for each cubic yard if the debris contains asbestos. That is because handling of that material “requires additional training and different safety measures,” Lang said.
There will be no reduced pricing for fire victims.
“It’s just the regular price,” Lang said.
The amount of debris can be mitigated by sectioning off scrap metal and some debris for a county transfer station or recycling center. According to Spokane County regional solid waste manager Deb Geiger, transfer stations can only take debris that is not mixed with any ash or demolition.
“You can bring us larger, fire-damaged items that are discernible and recognizable … that is not covered in ash,” she said. The transfer stations are also prohibited from accepting vehicles or appliances like refrigerators or air conditioners, while they will take burned furniture that is discernible. The Graham Road Landfill will not accept any debris if it is not packaged and labeled correctly.
“What those documents are and what the packaging needs to be depends on the material and what the asbestos survey says. So that’s where engaging a professional to do this work is very important,” Lang said.
Waste Management manager Eric Keogh was even more explicit at the Tuesday fire victim community meeting.
“When it comes to asbestos, there’s gonna be packaging requirements. And it’s pretty strict. We have to follow these in order for us to be able to accept it. So when you come in and we inspect it, and it was not done right, we’d have to reject. We do not have a choice,” Keogh said.
Sunshine Disposal regional manager Steve Wulf described at the meeting how his team uses larger steel containers to store the debris after it is bagged. It then needs to be labeled in the proper manner and hauled to the landfill.
“That will be our same rate that we charge and have been charging. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the cost of cleaning up. I don’t know what to say about it,” Wulf told the crowd.
Some resources to package and haul debris for free are available, but only for debris without asbestos. For example, Northwest Baptist Disaster Relief is taking applications from homeowners whose primary residence was totally or partially destroyed. If approved, the religious nonprofit will come to the property, package the debris and haul it in dumpsters to Graham Road.
But Northwest Baptist Disaster Relief volunteer Bill Stephenson said they can only do their work after an asbestos survey, and only if the land had been found devoid of asbestos.
The group also does not clear vehicle debris.
Northwest Baptist Relief was one of many organizations made available at the Disaster Assistance Center, which was opened by the Spokane County Emergency Management in the days following the fires. Located on the Spokane Falls Community College campus, the center hosted dozens of organizations and agencies offering assistance to fire victims. After two weeks of operation, the center closed down Friday.
“There’s continued need for services. But what we see is, after it being open for this week, the numbers have slowed down. We are entering the phase now of recovery. And so there will be continued opportunities to engage with folks,” Spokane County Emergency Management spokesperson Susan Biller said.
A list of resources for fire victims will remain on the organization’s website, scem.org.
Perhaps the most important short-term resource for fire victims is the Red Cross, especially if the victim’s home was uninsured.
“The Red Cross has the ability to start funneling a very limited amount of funds to individuals who they have case management files on, which is part of the reason why we’ve been encouraging folks from Day 1 to make sure that they’re registered with the Red Cross,” Fox said.
Forms of local long-term assistance will likely come from the state and a newly formed “long-term recovery group.” Made up of local leaders and agency representatives, this group will create a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that will direct aid that is locally generated. This includes the more than $700,000 raised by the Innovia Foundation.
“Recovery from disaster is a yearslong process. This isn’t something that’s going to be done by Christmas. And so the standing long-term recovery committee creates the structure under which all of the different nonprofits and nongovernmental agencies can do their work in supporting the unmet needs of the individuals impacted by the incident,” Fox said.