By Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County officials have begun adding up the devastation for potential application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for two types of disaster declarations.
If approved, one would reimburse the county, cities and electric utilities for expenses connected with the Okanogan Complex Fire, and the other would assist uninsured individuals who lost homes or property.
This week and next, county, state and federal officials will tour burned areas and go over numbers with local governments to quantify losses and damage to roads, powerlines and other public infrastructure, according to Mark Stewart, communications consultant for the Emergency Management Division of the Washington Military Department. They will also start to tally uninsured private-property losses.
At present, the state is assessing damage in Okanogan, Chelan and Stevens counties and on the Colville Reservation. The preliminary assessment will determine if the damage meets the minimum financial threshold required by FEMA, said Stewart. They may add other counties later, he said.
When all the information has been compiled, county emergency managers will make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee as to whether to ask President Obama to declare FEMA disasters for the two separate programs, public infrastructure and individual assistance, said Stewart.
The public-infrastructure damage must pass two tests — there is a minimum loss per county and then another formula for overall state losses. Damage to public infrastructure in each county must be at least $3.56 per capita — Okanogan County would have to have at least $147,000 in damage. Statewide, losses must exceed $1.41 per capita, or about $9.6 million, said Stewart. Meeting the thresholds does not guarantee presidential approval.
Public-infrastructure losses can also include overtime wages to repair infrastructure and costs incurred by fire districts, school districts and nonprofits that serve a governmental function, said Stewart. The FEMA grant covers 75 percent of eligible expenses.
Both Okanogan County and the state have experience with the FEMA process. Okanogan County received the public-assistance grant last year for damage from the Carlton Complex Fire and qualified public entities have received $23.7 million in reimbursement.
Some 800 square miles have burned in Okanogan County this year — almost twice as much as in the Carlton Complex — but much of the land that burned this year was undeveloped, and fewer structures have been destroyed.
The state’s request for an individual-assistance grant after the Carlton Complex Fire last year — which burned almost 300 homes and 260 outbuildings — was denied, as was an appeal. The Okanogan Complex burned about 200 homes and 110 other structures, according to Okanogan County Assessor Scott Furman.
FEMA’s individual-assistance grants are available only to people who lost primary residences and who had no insurance or were underinsured. Rental properties cannot be included, but renters could qualify if they lost all their possessions, said Stewart.
“We’re trying to quantify the number and amount of uninsured loss,” he said. They are also seeking information about other impacts, such as power and phone interruptions.
The Okanogan County assessor has already tallied $10.9 million in structure losses. The assessor’s office has not completed its assessment of burned land, in part because the fire is still active in many areas, according to Furman.
A tally of homes and property destroyed by the North Star Fire on the Colville Reservation was not available. Some properties on the reservation are on the county’s tax rolls, but Furman said he was not aware of any taxable structures that burned.
While there are financial thresholds for the public-assistance grants, the individual program is more subjective. It takes into account the number of homes destroyed and whether they are scattered throughout the county or concentrated in one area. It also factors in the extent of displacement and loss of livelihood and overall trauma, said Stewart.
The maximum award to an individual or household under the individual-assistance grant is $32,900, but average awards are typically much lower, said Stewart.
A deadline to submit private-property losses by the end of last week was set by Okanogan County Emergency Management to help gather preliminary information as a basis for a FEMA application. If the FEMA declaration is made, people would make formal applications, according to Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall.
Washington state has already received some help from FEMA this year — a fire-management assistance grant, which covers costs associated with fire suppression such as overtime for emergency managers and law enforcement, and a grant for emergency communications systems.
The state and FEMA work together to determine the incident period for any disaster declaration — that is, when the fires started and ended. Because so many fires started in different places at different times, merged, moved from one county to another, or were reclassified by fire managers, defining the incident period is bound to be complicated, said Stewart.