Biden administration approves disaster-relief aid for September fires

Michael Brock

The Biden administration on Thursday approved Washington state’s Major Disaster Declaration request for nine counties and two tribes in Eastern Washington that were devastated by wildfires over Labor Day weekend last year.

“Our state experienced extensive damage during last year’s wildfire season, particularly in Central and Eastern Washington,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement on Feb. 4. “This financial assistance will help rebuild public infrastructure that suffered damage — things like power lines, roadways, fencing around public areas and water and sewage systems.”

An estimated 80% of homes in Malden and Pine City — two rural communities in Whitman County — were wrecked by the fires in September.

“While we are still waiting on approval for our application for individual assistance in Whitman County, which would help private residents who lost homes or suffered property damage in the wildfires, today’s approval for FEMA aid by the White House will help get these communities moving more swiftly toward recovery,” Inslee said.

The declaration came after multiple requests from Inslee to President Donald Trump, as well as letters from Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray to President Joe Biden.

“I will never forget the devastation I saw first-hand in communities like Malden and Pine City — nor how frustrating it was to see federal aid withheld for so many months,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who leads the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and the state’s wildfire fighting force. “While these communities are in the beginning phases of recovery, this long overdue support is a crucial step toward helping residents rebuild their lives and livelihoods. I applaud the Biden administration for this action and the governor for his advocacy on behalf of those who were impacted.”

Commissioner Franz is asking the state Legislature to pass House Bill 1168 this session, which would create dedicated funding for wildfire response, forest health and community resilience.

“While this relief is welcome news, it is also a reminder we need to do more to address our wildfire crisis,” Franz said. “I urge the state Legislature to fully fund the wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience work needed to fight, prevent, and recover from wildfires across our state.”

DNR donated a surplus fire engine to Malden in December after the town’s fire station, including its only fire engine, was destroyed in the September fires.

Eastern Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in a statement that she visited Malden and Pine City days after the fire, and the devastation took her breath away.

“The biggest fear I heard when I visited was that after the speeches were over and the news cameras were gone, politicians would forget about Malden,” McMorris Rodgers said. “I have worked tirelessly since that visit to make sure that didn’t happen and to push to get these communities the relief they so desperately need. Individuals, families, and businesses in Malden and Pine City are still piecing their lives back together months later. This support is long overdue and I applaud the Biden administration for taking action to approve Governor Inslee’s Disaster Declaration Request. I will continue leading the effort to ensure federal resources reach these communities without delay.”