WA WILDFIRES: Newhouse, Murray, Cantwell, Reichert, McMorris Rodgers, Herrera Beutler Urge Additional Federal Disaster Assistance for Washington State
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The federal delegation representing areas in Washington state impacted by this summer's historic wildfires sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to grant Governor Jay Inslee's request for federal disaster assistance. On Wednesday, Governor Inslee requested assistance for both wildfires and the massive windstorm in late August. The letter was sent by U.S. Representative Dan Newhouse (WA-4), U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and Reps. Dave Reichert (WA-8), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-5), Jaime Herrera Beutler (WA-3).
In the letter, the members said, “We fully support Governor Inslee’s request for a major disaster declaration that includes hazard mitigation, public assistance, and individual assistance. The public assistance requested by Governor Inslee is vital to restoring public infrastructure damaged by the wildfires. Further, individual assistance with housing support, disaster crisis counseling, disaster unemployment, and other supports will help meet the needs of the families, business owners, and other community members who are struggling in the aftermath of this disaster. We therefore urge you to grant Governor Inslee’s request in its entirety and as soon as possible.”
In August, members expressed support of Governor Inslee’s request for a federal emergency disaster declaration, which was granted by FEMA. However, with more than one million acres burned and 146 homes destroyed and another 476 damaged, more federal assistance is necessary to respond adequately to the affected communities.
The full text of the letter is below:
October 8, 2015
The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
We write to urge you to swiftly approve the federal major disaster declaration requested on October 7, 2015 by Washington Governor Jay Inslee.
We are grateful for your quick approval on August 21, 2015, of Governor Inslee’s request for a federal emergency disaster declaration (FEMA-3372-EM). As the magnitude of these wildfires has grown, however, so too have the long-term personal and economic effects on small, rural communities in Washington state. The emergency declaration, while vital in supporting the immediate efforts to save lives and property, is inadequate to support the long-term needs of the region’s individual families and public entities.
As you know, Washington state is experiencing a historically intense wildfire season. Wildfires burning in counties throughout Central and Eastern Washington have stretched our state’s wildfire-fighting resources thin and have further devastated communities still recovering from last year’s fires. The Okanogan Complex fire of 2015 was the largest wildfire in Washington state’s history, more than doubling the acres burned by the previous record fire, the Carlton Complex fire of 2014. Over $319 million has been spent fighting wildfires in Washington state since June 1, supporting 11,450 firefighting and support personnel and 1,569 Washington National Guard soldiers at peak activity.
Taken together, wildfires in Washington state this season have burned over one million acres and destroyed 146 homes – 92 of which were uninsured – across 13 counties and four Federally-recognized tribes: Asotin, Chelan, Columbia, Douglas, Ferry, Garfield, Klickitat, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Stevens, Whatcom, and Yakima Counties; and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, the Spokane Tribe of Indians, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.
For the second year in a row, Okanogan County has been particularly hard hit by wildfire. Over 50 percent of the state’s total home loss was sustained by Okanogan County, which has historically been characterized by low housing vacancy rates and has been struggling to cope with the destruction of over 300 homes last year by wildfire. The Okanogan Complex and other wildfires have thrust a previously stressed region towards an increasingly dire housing situation. While local hotels are normally relied upon to address housing shortages triggered by disasters, the County’s ongoing and economically vital tourist season has significantly diminished the number of rooms available to displaced households. This is not a matter of affordability: there are simply no empty homes or rooms to accommodate displaced families. Federal assistance is needed immediately to confront this housing shortage before it grows into a crisis.
The region’s public infrastructure has sustained enormous damage due to the wildfires. Wildfires this year have inflicted more than $42 million in Public Assistance-eligible damage across the affected 13 counties. In Okanogan and Pend Oreille Counties, Public Assistance burden per capita exceeds $500. The Chelan and Okanogan Public Utility Districts (PUDs) reported over 232 miles of power lines and fiber optic cable and 983 poles impacted by wildfire. At the fires’ peak, more than 15,500 customers in the PUDs service areas were without power due to fire damage. Three radio communications sites powered by Slide Ridge in Chelan County remain without power, are currently seeking temporary power solutions, and it may require up to two years to restore full functionality. Slide Ridge serves the United States Forest Service (USFS), the National Park Service, as well as passenger boat operators on Lake Chelan. Rebuilding these public utilities will take significant amounts of time and funding and federal assistance is seriously needed.
We are proud that Washington state is home to a strong agricultural sector, with farmers, ranchers, and agriculture businesses located throughout our state. As of 2012, Okanogan County alone supported more than 1,440 farms and its production of apples, cherries, pears, forage, wheat, and cattle resulted in $287 million in sales. Of the estimated 41,000 Washingtonians living in Okanogan County, approximately 45 percent of the total workforce is tied to the agriculture sector. Thirty-five percent of Okanogan County’s 11,000 head of cattle were lost as wildfires swept through the area. An additional 12 percent are expected to be lost to starvation if adequate feeding solutions are not put into place, which would push aggregate cattle losses to $10.5 million. Furthermore, the regions’ fence line and grazing land has almost been completely destroyed for a second year in a row. The Washington Department of Natural Resources and the USFS estimate that they lost 95 and 80 percent of grazing land, respectively. With so much of the region’s workforce tied to the agricultural industry, the losses suffered have resulted in significant hardship for the local economy and residents of Central and Eastern Washington.
Several Washington tribes are heavily dependent upon the natural resources of their reservations to support annual operating budgets and provide benefits and employment to tribal members. Timber resources are critically important and can take decades to reach economic viability. An estimated one-fifth of the timber resources on the Colville Reservation have been lost during the 2015 wildfire season, and the North Star and Tunk Block wildfires collectively burned more than 250,000 acres on the Colville Reservation. Many of these reservation communities are plagued by high unemployment and lack of local employment opportunities, and therefore natural resources provide both essential operating funds and gainful employment. The federal government’s tribal trust responsibility needs to be upheld as we work collaboratively to recover from this devastating wildfire season. We encourage you to consider all options to support the recovery of all communities in Central and Eastern Washington, including those on reservations.
In recent weeks, we have heard from constituents throughout Central and Eastern Washington who have had their lives upended once more by wildfires. But we also have heard stories of bravery and generosity, of the grit and grace that have defined these communities for generations. The citizens of Central and Eastern Washington are fiercely independent people with a proud history of taking care of their own. Through their determination and hard work, these communities began to pull themselves out of the ashes of 2014’s fires. Today, not even a year removed, they face the harrowing prospect of starting over yet again. With this in mind, we find their calls for help all the more meaningful.
We are grateful of the thousands of firefighters, volunteers, and servicemembers from multiple local, state, and federal agencies who have responded heroically to this disaster. We are grateful for all those who have traveled from Colorado, Mississippi, Montana, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other jurisdictions to lend their assistance in firefighting. We are also deeply appreciative of the commitment of the many citizens, volunteers, charities, businesses, and local elected and appointed officials who have risen to serve their neighbors during this very difficult time. Lastly, we continue to mourn the three firefighters – Richard Wheeler, Andrew Zajac, and Tom Zbyszewski – who lost their lives combating the Twisp wildfire on August 19, 2015.
Considering the disaster burden that the region and the state have experienced over the last 18 months, we feel that federal assistance is critical to the long-term health and safety of affected communities. Since March 2014, Washington state has had to grapple with two major disaster declarations, three emergency declarations, and 20 Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAGs). Forty percent of FMAGs issued this year nationwide have been in response to Washington state wildfires. Concurrent with this major disaster request, Governor Inslee is requesting that a major disaster be declared for counties impacted by the worst summer windstorm in Washington state history, which occurred on August 29, 2015. While they have responded admirably, a disaster of this magnitude has exhausted the already-strained capacities of local communities and state agencies.
Therefore, we fully support Governor Inslee’s request for a major disaster declaration that includes hazard mitigation, public assistance, and individual assistance. The public assistance requested by Governor Inslee is vital to restoring public infrastructure damaged by the wildfires. Further, individual assistance with housing support, disaster crisis counseling, disaster unemployment, and other supports will help meet the needs of the families, business owners, and other community members who are struggling in the aftermath of this disaster.
We therefore urge you to grant Governor Inslee’s request in its entirety and as soon as possible. Thank you in advance for your prompt attention to this matter.