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Federal disaster declaration issued for Spokane wildfire victims

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(The Center Square) – The Biden administration on Tuesday announced a major disaster declaration that orders federal assistance for victims of devastating wildfires in Spokane County last summer.

Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the impacts of the Gray and Oregon Road fires.

The two wind-driven blazes swept across the county in August, scorching more than 21,000 acres, destroying hundreds of homes, causing millions of dollars in property damage, and claiming two lives.

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

According to the White House announcement, federal funding is also available to state, tribal, and eligible local governments and eligible private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work in Spokane County and for hazard mitigation measures statewide.

Federal recovery operations in the affected areas will be coordinated by Toney L. Raines of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and additional designations may be made later if requested by the state and warranted by further damage assessments.

Congressional, state, and local leaders hailed Tuesday’s announcement, which was initially requested in early October by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

“Today’s announcement from the Biden administration is welcome news for the communities of Medical Lake and Elk that are still recovering from last year’s devastating wildfires,” Inslee said Tuesday in a statement to The Center Square. “These fires prompted the evacuation of 5,000 people and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, more than any other wildfire in state history.”

“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,” said Inslee. “Even with this help, recovery will still be a long process.”

Spokane County commissioners also voiced their appreciation for the federal major disaster declaration and the support of Inslee’s petition by U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane.

“Their tireless support is appreciated, and I believe was key to unlocking this assistance,” said commission Chair Mary Kuney. “This much-needed support will make a difference in helping the victims move forward with next steps.”

Commissioner Al French also commended Medical Lake mayor Teri Cooper for her advocacy and chairing a long-term recovery group. Commissioner Josh Kerns said the federal declaration took longer than they had hoped, but he called it “a step in the right direction.”

The commission, which also includes Chris Jordan and Amber Waldref, has worked with the Spokane County treasurer and assessor on providing tax relief to hundreds of eligible fire victims who sustained partial or total loss of property, with the county’s planning and building departments to ensure victims “receive timely support and prioritization,” and with sheriff John Knowles and the county emergency management department for other resources such as debris testing and clean-up.

Murray, Cantwell, Rodgers, and state Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz also issued statements expressing gratitude for federal assistance to supplement recovery efforts.

“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,” said Rodgers. “It will unlock the financial resources and certainty they desperately need to begin rebuilding their homes and piecing their lives back together.”

In addition to the pending federal aid, state legislators are considering funding proposals in Washington’s supplemental budget for 2024. Among the dozens of listed projects are two proposals totaling over $4.47 million for fire cleanup and recovery efforts in Spokane County.

Both fires broke out on the hot afternoon of Friday, Aug. 18. Recently concluded investigations by the state Department of Natural Resources believe the Gray Road Fire near Medical Lake was started by faulty electrical components sparking from a pole-mounted security light. Cause of the Oregon Road Fire near the small community of Elk remains undetermined.

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