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PNW lawmakers want faster FEMA response for wildfire victims

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(The Center Square) – Three congressional members from Pacific Northwest have introduced bipartisan measures which aim to improve coordination between local, state, and federal agencies and tribal nations to deliver resources faster in the aftermath of disastrous wildfires.

The bills are a response to the 2020 Babb Road Fire which destroyed most of the small town of Malden in eastern Washington’s Whitman County and the Gray and Oregon Road fires in Spokane County which burned 366 homes and claimed two lives last August.

Named after the town, the MALDEN ACT – Making Aid for Local Disasters Equal Now – is sponsored by U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and James Risch, R-Idaho. In a press release Tuesday, they said it is a companion bill to one introduced in November by 5th Congressional District Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Spokane.

“After the 2020 fire that destroyed the town of Malden — and even after last year’s Gray and Oregon Road fires in Spokane County — federal assistance has been too slow to arrive. The MALDEN Act will help deliver disaster recovery aid to rural communities more quickly,” said Cantwell.

She said the bill, if enacted, would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to become involved in rural wildlife response earlier with local, state, and tribal officials and to make case workers available even if victims are denied federal assistance.

Rodgers said rural communities in eastern Washington are “too often at a disadvantage when it comes to wildfire recovery, especially when it takes weeks – or sometimes even months – to reach a decision on a disaster declaration.”

Last week, she hosted a roundtable discussion with local government officials, victims, and organizations to discuss ongoing cleanup efforts from the Gray and Oregon Road fires. That came two days after Rodgers and Cantwell sent a letter to President Biden requesting an update on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s request in early October for a federal major disaster declaration.

Similar update requests were made in December by Spokane County commissioners to the Biden Administration and the regional FEMA office in Seattle. At the time, a FEMA spokesperson said Inslee’s request was under “active review” and the length of the process is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Idaho residents also know the near-constant danger that communities face from wildfire, said Risch, a trained forester, due to “federally mismanaged forests in the West.” He said the MALDEN Act would require FEMA to “urgently respond to areas in need” while coordinating with local leaders who best know their communities’ needs.

“We must pass the MALDEN Act before the 2024 wildfire season starts,” said Risch.

Specifically, the measure would amend the Stafford Act, which constitutes the statutory authority for most federal disaster response activities. In addition to coordinating with local leaders, FEMA would be required to assist in identifying short and long-term recovery resources, including resources to prevent secondary natural disasters such as flooding, mudslides, and rockslides.

Also, FEMA would be directed to make case workers available for rural communities if a request for individual assistance to disaster victims is denied.

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