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News / Northwest

Biden approves disaster declaration for Spokane County fires

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: February 20, 2024, 6:05pm

President Joe Biden on Tuesday approved a major disaster declaration for the 2023 Spokane County wildfires, ordering federal assistance to help communities recover.

The Gray and Oregon Road fires started Aug. 18 amid multiple days of record or near-record heat, wind and low relative humidity. In about two days, the blazes tore through more than 20,000 combined acres in Medical Lake and near the town of Elk. Two residents died, thousands were evacuated, more than 360 primary homes were destroyed and about 450 homes were damaged.

The declaration makes federal funding available to those affected by the fires. The assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs and loans for the loss of uninsured property. It is also available to state, tribal and some local governments and nonprofit organizations for emergency work, as well as for hazard mitigation efforts statewide.

The Individual Assistance Program also helps connect disaster survivors with unemployment assistance, crisis counseling and case management, according to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s office.

In an October letter to the White House requesting assistance, Gov. Jay Inslee wrote that the “disaster has destroyed more primary homes than any other wildfire in Washington state history.” The estimated losses then in property value exceeded $150 million. The Spokesman-Review reported it would take more than $5 billion to repair all the damage the fires caused.

Thousands of residents evacuated, some to family or friends’ homes, and at least 227 people stayed in shelters. Patients and staff were forced to shelter in place for five days with limited electricity at Eastern State Hospital, a state-operated 367-bed inpatient psychiatric hospital, and Lakeland Village, a residential rehabilitation center.

More than 1,500 firefighters worked to contain the fires and protect lives.

In October, Sens. Murray and Cantwell, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers sent a letter to Biden in support of Inslee’s request for a disaster declaration.

Six months after the fires, the Medical Lake community “is just kind of in that messy middle place,” said Mayor Terri Cooper. “We’re trying to keep spirits high and working hard to overcome obstacles.”

Meanwhile, Cooper encourages residents to seek help through disaster case managers from the Salvation Army and other nonprofits, as well as the Spokane Region Long Term Recovery Group.

The Spokesman-Review in November reported that of the 582 intake forms Spokane County officials received, 251 had insurance, 123 were underinsured, 105 were uninsured and 103 had an unverified insurance status.

“This long-awaited announcement is what we had hoped for to provide needed assistance to the hundreds of families impacted by the Gray and Oregon fires,” Spokane County Commissioner Al French said in a statement.

FEMA will oversee recovery work.

Residents and business owners affected by the fires can begin applying for assistance at www.DisasterAssistance.gov, by calling 800-621-3362 or by using the FEMA app. Anyone using a relay service — such as video relay service, captioned telephone service or others — can give FEMA the number for that service.

Inslee last year authorized $2.5 million from the Governor’s Emergency Assistance Fund to fund disaster case management and asbestos testing for uninsured properties, and he directed the Department of Commerce to allocate $2.9 million in emergency funds for private property debris removal for those affected by the fires.

“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,” Inslee said in a statement Tuesday. “Getting assistance from FEMA is no small feat, and it’s greatly appreciated. Even with this help, recovery will still be a long process. “

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