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FEMA: No decision yet on aid request for Spokane County fire victims

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(The Center Square) – No decision has yet been made on a request for federal assistance to Spokane County residents who suffered losses from destructive wildfires in August.

Earlier this week, Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French sent a letter to the Biden administration and the regional office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking a status update regarding Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s Oct. 4 request for a “major disaster declaration.”

Such declarations are for any natural event causing damage beyond the combined abilities of state and local governments to respond or fully address. If approved, they can provide a wide range of federal assistance programs for individuals and infrastructure, including funds for both emergency and permanent work. Several steps are involved at the state and local level to qualify.

Natalie Shaver, a public affairs specialist with FEMA’s regional office in Seattle, told The Center Square on Wednesday that the commissioners’ letter had been received.

“As for an update, the request is still in process,” said Shaver, later adding, “The length of the process is case by case. I can confirm that the Governor’s request remains under active review at this time.”

“We can’t provide a specific timeline, but we will let you all know as soon as a determination has been made,” she said.

In the commissioners’ letter, Kerns said he would appreciate “the Biden Administration’s speedy consideration of Gov. Inslee’s request. I know the administration and our congressional delegation appreciate the urgency of securing federal assistance to aid our residents in time of need.”

French said he is committed to collaborating with federal agencies, state and local partners, and community partners to “secure the necessary resources to aid in our recovery efforts.”

The Gray and Oregon Road fires both erupted on the hot, dry afternoon of Aug. 18 and were driven by strong westerly winds near the respective communities of Medical Lake and Elk in Spokane County.

The two raging fires burned more than 22,484 acres, forced mass evacuations of residents, claimed two lives, and destroyed over 710 structures including 366 homes. Hundreds of firefighters from across the region were deployed and remained on scene into early September.

At the time, Spokane County officials were not optimistic about receiving FEMA funds for a “public assistance disaster” – monies used for damaged infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and electrical facilities. However, officials were hopeful that requests by Inslee and congressional members could sway a decision on FEMA aid to individuals.

Inslee asked the president to make financial assistance for wildfire survivors available through FEMA’s Individual Assistance program. If approved, the program would provide money and direct services to eligible individuals and households who have uninsured or underinsured expenses and serious needs.

The governor’s request was supported by Washington state’s two U.S. senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, whose 5th Congressional District includes Spokane County.

“While Washington state’s first responders have reacted to these disasters promptly and heroically, the events triggered by the Gray and Oregon Road Fires are quickly exhausting the already-strained capacity and resources of local communities and state agencies,” the three congresswomen wrote at the time.

“Consequently, we fully support Governor Inslee’s request for a Major Disaster Declaration for the Gray and Oregon Road Fires that includes Individual Assistance and the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program,” they said.

Inslee also asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency to assist with debris management and disposal, and his office provided $2.5 million in emergency funding to help with individual assistance.

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