WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Thursday declared last year’s wildfires in Washington a major disaster, approving public assistance funds requested by Gov. Jay Inslee after blazes devastated communities across the state, including the towns of Malden and Pine City.
Former President Donald Trump held up the requests for more than four months over a feud with Inslee, a Democrat, despite pleas to approve the aid from Republicans and Democrats who represent Washington in Congress. Biden’s approval applies to nine counties, as well as the Yakama Nation and Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
After hearing the news, Malden Mayor Dan Harwood drew a long, deep breath before expressing his relief that the wait was finally over.
“Our citizens are going to be able to go forward now,” Harwood said, tearing up. “We’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. It’s a very, very good day.”
A request for individual assistance for Whitman County, which could help displaced residents of Malden and Pine City find temporary housing and rebuild their lives, is still under consideration, according to a news release from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican who represents Whitman County, repeatedly called on Trump – including in a December phone call – to approve the aid before he left office.
“Individuals, families, and businesses in Malden and Pine City are still piecing their lives back together months later,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “This support is long overdue and I applaud the Biden administration for taking action.”
Inslee expressed relief after Biden approved the aid but acknowledged the outstanding request is important to Malden and Pine City, where roughly 80% of homes were destroyed by the Babb Fire last September and many residents were uninsured or underinsured.
“While it has been a long wait, I’m pleased to say the Biden administration has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request,” the governor said in a statement. “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’s proposed budget would provide $2.5 million in state assistance to individuals and families affected by wildfires and other disasters. If approved by the state Legislature, that money would become available to Washingtonians starting July 1.
Harwood said waiting for federal help and explaining to residents there was nothing he could do has been frustrating and exhausting. Without a decision from the White House, locals were blocked for applying for other sources of aid that become available only after a governor’s request is denied.
Thursday’s approval means he has some busy weeks ahead, but Harwood said he and other Malden residents are ready to get to work.
“If you thought we were a bunch of busy bees before, hang on to your hat,” he said, “because we’re fired up.”
Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville Business Council, said the aid will be important for the Colville Tribes to recover after five wildfires in September destroyed 80 homes, farmland and livestock, hundreds of power poles and the former Omak Wood Products mill.
“While this declaration should have been approved months ago by the last administration, the CCT is relieved that President Biden approved it so that the affected counties and the Colville Tribes can begin moving forward,” Cawston said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called on Biden to swiftly approve the relief funds after his inauguration Jan. 20 and decried what she characterized as Trump’s obstinacy.
“No one should play politics with disaster relief,” Cantwell said in a statement. “Now it is time to help Malden rebuild with this disaster declaration, which makes FEMA resources available to communities to help rebuild things like roads, bridges, and power lines.”
Sen. Patty Murray, another Washington Democrat, hailed Biden’s move and credited the Washingtonians who have pressed their elected representatives to act.
“I appreciate everyone in Malden and other affected communities who have shared their stories with me to take to the White House and advocate for aid – your words and efforts have been critical to getting this done,” Murray said. “Ensuring you get all the resources you need, including individual assistance, remains a top priority for me, and I will continue working with the Biden-Harris Administration to see this through till you’ve recovered.”
Scott Hokonson was watching Mickey Mouse cartoons with his young son when he got a call from a contact at the state’s Emergency Management Division telling him the president was about to approve the aid.
It was a rare day off for Hokonson, who had led a community group working to rebuild since he lost his home in the fire. After months of planning for approval of federal aid, he was ready to put the plans into action.
“I guess I’d been waiting so long I couldn’t really believe it was here,” Hokonson said. “Now the real work begins. There’s just going to be a lot of people and a lot of paperwork, and hopefully we can get things cleaned up and start to rebuild.”
In a news conference Thursday, Inslee said he had no further information about the dollar amount or timeline of the assistance from FEMA.
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about the status of Inslee’s request for individual assistance, and a FEMA spokeswoman declined to provide further details. Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said the governor’s office had no information to share about the pending request.
Reporter Laurel Demkovich contributed to this story from Olympia.
Orion Donovan-Smith’s reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.