Losses in Okanogan County worst in the state
By Marcy Stamper
Destruction from wildfire and wind this summer was so severe that Gov. Jay Inslee has asked for federal disaster assistance to help the majority of counties in the state repair roads, powerlines and other infrastructure.
Inslee submitted the request to President Barack Obama for major disaster declarations for 20 counties and eight tribes on Oct. 7.
Inslee applied for several programs under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) based on the extent and nature of the damage. Okanogan and Chelan counties and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation sustained destruction with such a wide impact that Inslee is also requesting aid through the Individuals and Households program for these areas.
If approved by Obama, the individual assistance could provide grants for uninsured property losses, disaster crisis counseling and special unemployment benefits. Public assistance reimburses local governments for losses to roads and other infrastructure.
“This is the second time in two years that many of the same communities and counties have been impacted by disaster,” Inslee said. “The people of Washington state are resilient, but at the same time, their governments’ resources can only go so far. Federal assistance will help enormously in getting our friends, neighbors and communities on the road to recovery.”
More than 1 million acres burned in Washington since June 1, with Okanogan County breaking last year’s record for the largest fire in state history with the 523,000 acres burned by the Okanogan Complex, said Inslee.
Thousands of people and businesses who didn’t sustain direct damage from the fires had to evacuate, said Inslee. The preliminary assessment cited in the governor’s request said 146 homes were destroyed and 476 damaged in Okanogan County alone. Two-thirds of affected homeowners were uninsured or underinsured.
Inslee also requested assistance for public infrastructure for nine other counties in Eastern Washington.
Help for individuals and businesses requested
If approved by the president, the individual-assistance declaration would provide money for 18 months of housing in the local area for displaced individuals and families. It could also provide money to repair damaged homes to make them habitable.
Individual assistance would also provide grants to help with expenses not covered by insurance, such as replacement of personal property, transportation and medical or dental expenses.
The public assistance program would pay 75 percent of eligible costs for emergency response, debris removal, and repairs to roads, bridges, public utilities and other public infrastructure.
Inslee is also requesting low-interest loans through the Small Business Administration for businesses that lost property, inventory and revenue because of the fire or windstorm.
In August, Obama approved federal grants to defray 75 percent of eligible state and local fire suppression costs in the state.
Inslee’s detailed request includes dramatic descriptions of the scope of the disasters:
“Okanogan County: Aug. 19, 2015 was the most climactic day of the fire suppression efforts. The Okanogan County Sheriff referred to this day as a ‘hellstorm.’ Three firefighters were killed, one suffered life-threatening injuries, and four others were injured during response to the Twisp River Fire, part of the Okanogan Complex,” he wrote.
Inslee described widespread power and phone outages and the closing of all but one evacuation route as emergency managers issued widespread evacuations throughout the county.
Inslee estimated the per capita impact of the wildfires at $506 in Okanogan County, second only to Pend Oreille County, where the figure was $562.
The statistics Inslee cited are striking:
• A total of 1,541 fires in the state, two-thirds human caused
• Total estimated firefighting cost of $320 million
• An unprecedented 29 state fire mobilizations, costing $28.8 million on local land and $94.9 million on state land
• More than 11,450 firefighters and support personnel actively working on fires at the peak of suppression
• 121 lightning-ignited fires, including the Okanogan Complex, from Aug. 10 to 14
• Many of the large fires are not predicted to be contained until late October
Damage to agriculture in Okanogan County alone:
• An estimated 3,850 cattle lost (one-third of the total), worth $7.7 million
• Another 1,400 cattle at risk of starvation without adequate feed solutions
• Virtually every fence line destroyed, in some places for the second year in a row
• Wildfire burned 95 percent of state grazing land and 80 percent of federal grazing land
“Unfortunately, the 2015 Washington Wildfires wreaked havoc in communities that are in the midst of recovery from previous disasters. Okanogan County, the most impacted county in this request, is still struggling to recover from the catastrophic declared fire from 2014,” wrote Inslee.
Inslee also details damages in other counties and to tribes, including contamination to drinking water, damage to schools, interruptions in social services for seniors, and destruction of fences and agricultural land.
The fires and windstorm follow a period of significant disasters that have hit Washington since the Oso landslide in March 2014.
Destruction from windstorm
While the summer was so dry that there were wildfires even in typically wet Western Washington, the most severe damage there was from a hurricane-force windstorm at the end of August — the largest on record for the month. The storm caused widespread power outages and damaged utilities and other public infrastructure throughout Western Washington.
Inslee has requested assistance to repair public infrastructure damaged by the windstorm for 11 counties and four tribes in Western Washington. Whatcom County is on the request list for both fire and wind.
This windstorm also affected Okanogan County, where blowing dust forced firefighters to withdraw from the Tunk Block and North Star fires, according to Inslee’s request.
Inslee is also requesting the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for the entire state to help with community planning to prevent future damage from a disaster.
Last year Okanogan County received a FEMA declaration for public assistance but was turned down twice for individual assistance.
Obama has not made a decision on the request yet.