Spokane lawmakers eye legislation to help fire victims rebuild

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(The Center Square) – Two Spokane-area lawmakers say they will propose legislation in Washington’s upcoming 2024 session to help victims rebuild from the devasting wildfires that swept across Spokane County in August.

Republican state Reps. Suzanne Schmidt and Mike Volz said many residents within their respective 4th and 6th Legislative Districts lost homes and property from the Gray and Oregon Road fires.

And many of the affected victims “are now losing hope as they realize new state building regulations mean more time and more money to rebuild,” Schmidt and Volz in a press release Wednesday.

In numerous cases, the lawmakers said, insurance will not cover the cost to replace what victims lost because their policies are based on building codes in effect at the beginning of 2023.

New regulations instituted later year this by the state building code council could potentially add “tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of rebuilding,” said Volz.

He and Schmidt are proposing a bill that would allow victims to rebuild under codes in effect on Jan. 1. If enacted, the measure would apply to any property damaged by the wildfires for building permits issued up to June 20, 2025.

“I think giving a break to those who lost everything in the recent wildfires is the least we can do at the state level and I urge my colleagues across the aisle to support this common-sense, much-needed proposal,” said Volz.

“Homeowners trying to rebuild need some level of certainty,” said Schmidt. “No one is truly prepared for the kind of devastation we saw around the Elk and West Plains communities. But then again, no one is prepared for the devastation after the devastation.”

“Finding out you can’t afford to rebuild in a timely manner because of new, excessive state regulations is a gut punch fire victims cannot afford,” she said.

Volz and Schmidt say they finalizing a draft of the bill and will have it ready when the 2024 legislative session opens Jan. 8 in Olympia. They also expect support from state Senators Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, and Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley.

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 entire towns to evacuate, destroyed over 710 structures including 366 homes, and claimed the lives of two men. Hundreds of firefighters from across the region were deployed and remained on scene into early September.

Earlier this month, three congressional members from Washington state joined Gov. Jay Inslee in urging the Biden Administration to support a “major disaster declaration” for the affected areas.

A declaration by the president can trigger a wide range of federal aid programs for individuals and public infrastructure, including funds for both emergency and permanent work. Several steps are involved at the state and local level to qualify.

Aid for wildfire survivors was requested through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’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 request was supported by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane and U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.

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