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News / Northwest

‘It’s going to be a long process’: Spokane leaders caution that federal fire aid will take time to arrive

By Emma Epperly, The Spokesman-Review
Published: February 24, 2024, 2:18pm

Spokane — When Medical Lake Mayor Terri Cooper heard that Spokane County would receive federal aid to help recover from this summer’s wildfires, relief washed over her.

President Joe Biden designated Spokane County as a major disaster area Tuesday, about six months after the Gray and Oregon Road fires burned 21,000 acres and destroyed more than 300 homes.

The long wait had left leaders of the recovery effort in limbo, unable to tell fire victims if some resources would be available to them.

“I was happy to have an answer,” said Cooper, who also chairs the Spokane Region Long Term Recovery Group. “We were stalled on certain programs until we had a yes or a no.”

While the designation opens up the potential for more aid to affected families, Cooper cautioned that the process is slow and complex.

“It’s coming late in the game,” Cooper said. “It’s going to take a while to process it and get through the government systems.”

Often, FEMA funds will help significantly with cleanup after a natural disaster, then the state will come in to help with rebuilding.

Many residents of Elk and Medical Lake have already had asbestos testing and cleanup done on their properties, and paid thousands out of pocket to get the job done.

There is some opportunity to get reimbursement from the state and potential for more federal dollars, Cooper said.

“This is not the savior. This is not going to make people whole,” Cooper said. “But to think of it as another layer of help that will come later that may offer some reimbursement or some assistance.”

The average individual payout from FEMA is $8,000, with a maximum of $40,000, Cooper said she was told by officials.

FEMA officials will arrive in Spokane in the next week to set up informational sites, Cooper said.

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Right now, people impacted by the fire can call Salvation Army case workers to get a recovery plan started. Those case workers can help with filling out FEMA paperwork, Cooper said. They also can help get immediate needs met for families through the long term recovery group and other local nonprofits.

“It’s my hope that we can coordinate FEMA with our case manager because there will be a lot of duplicity, and I think if we can coordinate that we can maybe save some angst for the folks that are in the midst of the recovery process,” Cooper said.

The FEMA declaration does open up a slew of grant opportunities, which Cooper hopes will help with fire prevention projects.

Last week, residents of Malden cut the ribbon at a new building housing the fire station, town hall and post office. Much of Malden burned down in the 2020 Babb Road Fire.

Malden Mayor Dan Harwood had a word of advice for residents of Medical Lake and Elk: “Be patient.”

Cooper has taken that advice to heart.

“It’s going to be a long process,” Cooper said of recovery efforts.