Hank Cramer. Photo by Marcy Stamper

Hank Cramer. Photo by Marcy Stamper

By Marcy Stamper

Teams of federal, state and county assessors took an in-depth tour of fire damage in the county last week to make preliminary estimates of losses to personal property and public infrastructure caused by the Carlton Complex Fire. The numbers will be the basis for the county’s application for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

State emergency management personnel are tabulating the numbers, which are expected to be submitted to Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday (Aug. 6). If Inslee declares a disaster, the request is then channeled through state and local FEMA offices and the Department of Homeland Security on its way to President Obama, who has final authority for making a major disaster declaration, according to Okanogan County Emergency Manager Scott Miller.

The actual estimates of damage compiled by the inspectors will not be available until the governor makes a formal request, according to Mark Clemens of the Washington Emergency Management Division.

Requests for disaster aid from FEMA fall under two different programs. The public-assistance program would compensate the county, towns and electric utilities for 75 percent of the costs of damage to public infrastructure. The other program is for individual assistance to people who lost homes and private property in the fire, according to Hank Cramer, a disaster reservist with the state’s Emergency Management Division, who helped assess private-property damage.

Damage to public infrastructure must meet a minimum threshold of $9.3 million (based on a formula for the number of county and state residents), which includes cost of materials like power poles and extra wages for overtime and outside utility crews. “I think we’re well beyond the threshold,” said Cramer. While meeting the threshold does not guarantee the disaster aid, Cramer believes approval is likely.

FEMA assistance to individuals is more subjective and has no minimum financial threshold, said Cramer. That program takes into account the number of homes destroyed and where they are located—whether scattered throughout the county or concentrated in one area—and the extent of displacement and loss of livelihood.

The disaster losses are reviewed against a backdrop of existing conditions—the average income in the county and the unemployment rate, said Cramer. “We make the subjective argument that this is really, really bad and hope for individual assistance,” he said.

Factors that support an individual-assistance disaster declaration include a lower-than-average rate of homeowner insurance, since people in remote locations often have difficulties obtaining insurance, said Cramer.

In the Oso mudslide, where 43 people died and 38 homes were destroyed, FEMA quickly issued disaster declarations for both public and private losses. The fact that the Oso disaster was concentrated in one very small town and involved significant loss of life most likely contributed to the decision, said Cramer, who also worked on assessments in Oso.

By contrast, FEMA did not grant the individual-assistance declaration to people affected by the Waldo Canyon wildfire in Colorado two years ago, in which 900 homes were destroyed. In that case, the disaster occurred in a more urban area, where residents were connected to urban water systems, said Cramer.

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Grim inspections

Three FEMA teams visited all damaged private property that could be accessed—one to Pateros and the lower Methow Valley; one to Malott and the Chiliwist; and one to the Loup, Carlton and Gold Creek. In most cases, all that remained after the fire were foundations, so photos from the county assessor were used to calculate the value of the loss, said Cramer.

Of the more than 300 houses destroyed in the fire, the largest concentrations were in Pateros, where 35 burned, and Alta Lake, where 52 were lost, said Cramer.

The FEMA request will also include destruction caused by the Rising Eagle Road Fire that broke out late last week, and may include Saturday’s windstorm, said Cramer.

If FEMA approves the individual-assistance declaration, people who lost property would have to apply for a grant to cover uninsured losses. While the maximum grant is $34,000, the average grant in Washington over the past 10 years was between $3,000 and $5,000, said Cramer.

FEMA grants typically go toward uninsured losses on a home, furniture, appliances and vehicles. “FEMA will not replace your house,” said Cramer.

People could also receive aid for crisis counseling and would be eligible for special unemployment benefits connected with the disaster, said Cramer.

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Public disaster declaration

Other FEMA teams met with county and city officials and utility managers. If the public-assistance declaration is made, FEMA would compensate the county and cities for 75 percent of their losses. The state Legislature can elect to cover an additional 12.5 percent, and the remaining 12.5 percent will be paid by the public entities themselves. In-kind donations of labor and materials can be used to offset the cities’ and county’s contributions.

Another impact of the fires will be on the tax base for the county, the cities and junior taxing districts because the value of destroyed property is subtracted from the tax rolls, said Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell. Property owners who document lost property will receive a refund on taxes already paid or a reduced tax bill.

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Housing crisis

While the county has several warehouses full of carefully inventoried donations, some in place to help people over the next several years, “the biggest need is housing,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody. “People have no place to cook or store goods.”

“Housing is an immediate need, because in three months the snow is going to fly,” said Miller.

Despite the clear need for affordable, short-term housing, FEMA is not likely to provide trailers to those displaced by the fire, said Cramer. “The trailer issue after Hurricane Katrina was so unsatisfactory from everyone’s point of view that trailers would not be the go-to solution,” he said.

A more likely intervention would be assistance with temporary housing and moving costs, although with the limited housing available in the Methow Valley, that could mean temporary relocation to Omak or Chelan, said Cramer.

FEMA may also consider providing temporary modular housing, which the agency brought in after a flood in Alaska, said Cramer.

The county planning and building departments are working to expedite the permitting process and to identify places where temporary housing could be erected, according to Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston.

The county has set up a long-term housing task force of local agencies and the state Department of Commerce to work on housing needs, said Miller.

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Other sources of help

While FEMA may be the most well-known agency for disaster relief, other government agencies provide assistance, most in the form of loans. In addition to assisting businesses, the Small Business Administration (SBA) offers low-interest loans with easy qualification requirements for people who lost homes, said Cramer.

SBA also makes loans to businesses that suffered cash-flow problems. Restaurants and hotels in the area lost millions of dollars during the peak of the fire, said Cramer.

The Rural Development Agency makes loans to both homeowners and municipalities to help with housing and public infrastructure.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has programs to assist farmers with loss of livestock, orchards, fencing and grazing land.

SBA and USDA automatically declare a disaster if FEMA does, but the two agencies can—and probably will—declare a disaster on their own, said Cramer.

There is no estimate of when a decision will be made on the two FEMA programs, but Washington’s Congressional delegation, who visited the burned areas last week, have vowed to press for prompt action.

Application deadlines will be announced after the disaster declarations are received.