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FEMA Approves Wildfire Aid For Eastern Washington Counties

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved disaster relief requests for nine eastern Washington counties and two Native tribes impacted by summer wildfires.

That includes aid for the Whitman County towns of Malden and Pine City, which burned during a Labor Day wildfire that was fanned by high winds.

Today’s news means that communities affected by wildfires can now apply for federal aid. Previous requests for assistance had been ignored by the Trump Administration.

Scott Hokonson, a Malden town council member and the head of the Pine Creek rebuilding effort, said the approval comes as a relief for many Malden and Pine City who have spent the last five months in limbo.

“This is massive,” Hokonson said. “this is the biggest event that’s happened to us since the fire.”

Hokonson said he and other community members have done as much as they could in the last five months without federal aid, but the receiving the emergency designation will allow them to begin rebuilding. He said the designation will mean the town can rebuild roads, start clean-up efforts and to replace public buildings. He said the request for individual aid is still pending, but he is confident the Biden administration will make a decision on whether the town needs individual aid soon.

He said once community members have an official designation, they will be able to qualify for low-interest and low-barrier loans, and other aid they have been barred from for the last five months.

"Now we get to move away from part-time solutions, duck tape and maybe sort of and now we get to have the federal government involved in our recovery which is paramount to our success," he said.

Biden’s decision to approve FEMA aid also means the communities in Douglas, Franklin, Kittitas, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Skamania, Whitman and Yakima counties can now apply for aid. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation also received aid.

Several Washington elected officials have issued statements in support of today's news.

“While it has been a long wait, I’m pleased to say the Biden administration has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request," Washington Governor Jay Inslee said. "This financial assistance will help rebuilding public infrastructure that suffered damage – things like power lines, roadways, fencing around public areas and water and sewage systems.

“While we are still waiting on approval for our application for individual assistance in Whitman County, which would help private residents who lost homes or suffered property damage in the wildfires, today’s approval for FEMA aid by the White House will help get these communities moving more swiftly toward recovery," he said.

“I will never forget the devastation I saw first-hand in communities like Malden and Pine City – nor how frustrating it was to see federal aid withheld for so many months,” said Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.While these communities are in the beginning phases of recovery, this long overdue support is a crucial step toward helping residents rebuild their lives and livelihoods. I applaud the Biden administration for this action and the governor for his advocacy on behalf of those who were impacted.”

“This support is long overdue and I applaud the Biden administration for taking action to approve Governor Inslee’s Disaster Declaration Request. I will continue leading the effort to ensure federal resources reach these communities without delay,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington) in a statement.

“No one should play politics with disaster relief. Now it is time to help Malden rebuild with this disaster declaration, which makes FEMA resources available to communities to help rebuild things like roads, bridges, and power lines," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington).

“I’m so glad that President Biden listened to the pleas of the communities and Tribes who have been devastated by wildfires, and moved quickly to grant a disaster declaration and relief after the previous administration’s delays,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington).

“I appreciate everyone in Malden and other affected communities who have shared their stories with me to take to the White House and advocate for aid—your words and efforts have been critical to getting this done. Ensuring you get all the resources you need, including individual assistance, remains a top priority for me, and I will continue working with the Biden-Harris Administration to see this through till you’ve recovered," she said.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.
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