OLYMPIA — The Federal Emergency Management Agency has denied Washington state’s request for disaster assistance for individuals who suffered uninsured losses in wildfires this year, the governor’s office announced Friday.
“This is very disappointing news. This is the second time in as many years that we’ve been denied individual assistance following a major fire,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a written statement. “We have homeowners that have lost everything.”
Inslee had requested aid for residents in Okanogan, Stevens and Chelan counties, and the Colville Reservation in northeastern Washington.
Most of the damage occurred in Okanogan County, one of the top agriculture-producing counties in the state. The 522,290-acre Okanogan Complex fire burned one year after the 256,000-acre Carlton Complex blazed through the county.
An estimated 3,850 cattle were lost in this year’s fire, according to a preliminary estimate.
Being bypassed again by FEMA is painful, said Jon Wyss, chairman of the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group and president of the Okanogan Farm Bureau.
The recovery group issued a statement saying its pleas for FEMA aid fell on deaf ears. “It would have made a world of difference,” Wyss said.
FEMA notified the governor of its decision in a letter Thursday. The agency said the damage suffered by individuals wasn’t severe enough to warrant assistance.
FEMA spokeswoman Cam Rossie said the agency toured fire-damaged areas to assess property losses, disruptions to daily lives and the availability of volunteers in determining whether it needed to provide assistance.
“We’re not always the best option for recovery,” she said.
More than 1 million acres burned in Washington after June 1. The fires destroyed 146 homes and damaged 476. Nearly two-thirds of the homes were uninsured or underinsured, according to the governor’s office.
Agriculture is the main economic driver in the hardest-hit counties, according to a state report submitted to FEMA.
“As a native of Okanogan County, it is hard to overstate the heartbreak and the suffering the people of northeast Washington have gone through the past two fires,” Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said in a written statement. “By refusing to help, FEMA is letting down communities that are in desperate need of assistance.”
Inslee said FEMA should re-evaluate how it determines eligibility for individual disaster assistance. “I will continue to fight for greater federal support for disaster recovery particularly as our state encounters hotter, drier and increasingly devastating fire seasons,” he said.
If FEMA had granted the state’s request, individuals would have been eligible to apply for displaced worker benefits, low-interest loans and money for temporary housing and to replace lost property.
The Western Governors’ Association last year adopted a resolution calling on FEMA to provide more help for individuals after disasters. Washington officials said Friday that it’s unclear to them how FEMA evaluates requests for assistance.
The governors also called for more funding for the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s emergency watershed protection program.
Inslee also announced Friday that he will form a wildland fire council to coordinate recovery and prepare for future fires. Goldmark will lead the council.
FEMA this week approved federal aid to repair public facilities damaged by wildfires in eight counties and the Colville Reservation. The agency denied aid for four other counties and three other reservations. Wildfires statewide caused $42.4 million damage to public property, according to a preliminary assessment by state and federal officials.