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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Biden signs disaster declaration six months after Spokane wildfires

President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration Monday, six months after the Gray and Oregon Road wildfires devastated parts of Spokane County. The move unlocks a slew of federal aid.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will coordinate the dispersal of likely millions in federal funds for both residents affected and to repair public infrastructure.

Some of the programs available for individuals are unemployment assistance, crisis counseling, case management, grants for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.

Federal funding is also available to local governments and some nonprofits to help with debris removal and to repair facilities and infrastructure damaged by the fire, among other opportunities.

The Aug. 18 fires were among the worst in Washington state history, burning more than 21,000 acres and destroying over 300 homes.

“These fires prompted the evacuation of 5,000 people and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, more than any other wildfire in state history,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement. “While state and local agencies answered the call to respond to the fires and support recovery, the scale of this disaster exhausted the resources available. Getting assistance from FEMA is no small feat, and it’s greatly appreciated. Even with this help, recovery will still be a long process.”

The long delay in an answer to Inslee’s Oct. 4 request for federal aid has frustrated local leaders.

“We just need a decision – up or down, just give us a decision,” Al French, Spokane County commissioner, said at a roundtable on the issue last month. “In the absence of a decision, we’re sitting here with no direction.”

The lag is a month longer than the delay in aid residents of Washington state’s Malden and Pine City faced under former President Donald Trump. Trump was frustrated with Inslee, spurring the holdup, The Spokesman-Review reported at the time. Ultimately, Malden only got public assistance but was denied individual aid.

It’s unclear what caused the delay in aid for the fire victims.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers sent a letter to Biden on Jan. 22 asking for an update on Inslee’s request for aid. Two days later, McMorris Rodgers hosted a roundtable in Spokane to hear from local leaders on the struggles people affected by the fires were facing.

Residents feel there’s no one to help them, said Dick Ziehnert, vice chair of the Spokane Region Long Term Recovery Group, a nonprofit that works with governments and community organizations to aid recovery efforts.

The federal aid will increase the funds available for recovery from the approximately $166 million in property damage caused by the fires.

Medical Lake asked the state for roughly $30 million to rebuild the water and sewage lines in three neighborhoods that burned down just outside the city limits. Its namesake body of water, along with Silver Lake, will require substantial debris cleanup estimated at $8 million, Mayor Terri Cooper told The Spokesman-Review last month. The city requested another $30 million to build 55 cabins on the west shore of Medical Lake to be on reserve for families displaced in emergencies. Cooper could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Those types of large-scale projects could benefit from FEMA funds.

“I extend our sincere thanks to the federal delegation for their steadfast advocacy, including Senator Murray, Senator Cantwell, and Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers and their staff. Their tireless support is appreciated, and I believe was key to unlocking this assistance,” said Mary Kuney, chair of the Board of County Commissioners. “This much-needed support will make a difference in helping the victims move forward with next steps.”

Cantwell celebrated the declaration but continued to voice frustration at the delay.

“The President’s Major Disaster Declaration is a critical step in helping Spokane County communities rebuild and it will support the recovery of the more than 1,000 displaced residents from last year’s devastating wildfires,” Cantwell said in a statement. “While the approval of this declaration is key to helping these communities heal, this is another stark reminder of how slow federal assistance can be to arrive in the aftermath of a disaster. I will continue working with my colleagues on legislative changes to speed disaster recovery aid delivery to rural communities.”

County Commissioner Amber Waldref said she was proud of the bipartisan efforts to secure the emergency declaration, especially by elected federal leaders.

Waldref said she was glad the county finally received notice about the state of their emergency request after waiting months for a response, and would like to see the process improved so other communities that have experienced a disaster do not end up waiting months for aid like the victims of the Oregon Road and Gray fires.

“I hope FEMA can definitely speed up this process, because it left a lot of people in limbo,” Waldref said. “You kind of need to know if that federal assistance is going to be available when deciding how you’re going to rebuild, and what the next steps might be. I’m hoping that our delegation can keep advocating for more funding, and to help the process become more streamlined.”

In November, McMorris Rodgers, Cantwell and Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho reintroduced the Making Aid for Local Disasters Equal Now (MALDEN) Act, with hopes it would improve coordination between government agencies at all levels to deliver resources more quickly after wildfires by making FEMA employees available before a disaster declaration.

Residents and business owners who sustained losses in the designated areas can begin applying for assistance at, by calling 800-621-FEMA (3362) or by using the FEMA App.

Local leaders react

“Today’s long overdue approval of a Major Disaster Declaration for Spokane County will be life-changing for those who lost everything to the Gray and Oregon Road fires. It will unlock the financial resources and certainty they desperately need to begin rebuilding their homes and piecing their lives back together. I’m proud of the bipartisan efforts that went into getting this assistance approved, and I’m grateful the wait is finally over for our communities,” McMorris Rodgers said.

“The Gray and Oregon Road fires were absolutely devastating for families in Northern Spokane Country, hundreds of whom saw their homes and their land destroyed. I made clear in the immediate aftermath of those fires that I’d do everything I could to make sure these communities had the resources they needed to get through this and recover,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said. “Since then I’ve been pushing hard for this disaster declaration, including in a conversation with the White House just last week, because I know how critical this is to unlocking federal dollars and resources for people in Northern Spokane County to recover and rebuild. I want to thank the Biden Administration for always working closely with us to put the people of Washington state first – now I’ll be focused on making sure this federal assistance gets where it needs to go to really help the people who lost so much in these fires.”

“This long-awaited news is a testament to our shared commitment to recovery, and addressing the urgent needs of our community,” said French, Commissioner representing District 5, which includes the areas affected by the Gray fire. “I will continue to work with our county departments and local agencies to cut red tape and pave the way for a speedy and streamlined rebuilding process.”

“We will continue to advocate at the state-level, and coordinate with all our partners, to ensure resources are made available and that any roadblocks to recovery are removed,” said Josh Kerns, commissioner representing District 3, which includes the areas affected by the Oregon Road fire. “I especially want to commend the amazing community partners who have united behind ‘Elk Strong,’ and demonstrate how much we can accomplish by neighbor helping neighbor.”

County Commissioner Chris Jordan said he was grateful those affected by the Oregon Road and Gray fires will have access to much-needed federal aid. He said achieving the declaration took a lot of collaboration from leaders at the federal, state and local level.

“I think it’s great news,” Jordan said. “It was a team effort from everybody. Regardless of party, and everything else, we worked together.”

“I am heartened by President Biden’s approval of the Washington disaster declaration, ensuring that the families and communities affected by the Gray and Oregon fires can access vital assistance. This federal support is crucial as our friends and neighbors continue to recover and rebuild from the unprecedented destruction,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said in a statement. “As we prepare for the upcoming fire season, it’s important that we each do all we can to prevent these fires from happening in the first place. We need all of you to be ‘one less spark.’ I’m proud of the work the Department of Natural Resources does to restore forest health and prepare landowners through the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program, but we can’t do it alone – we’re all in this together.”

Reporter Nick Gibson contributed to this story.