News Releases

Washington, D.C.—Today, the federal delegation representing impacted areas in Washington state sent a letter to the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), expressing their disappointment in the denial of Gov. Inslee’s request for individual assistance for families impacted by wildfires in Okanogan County and public assistance in Chelan County. The letter requests that FEMA provide the Washington State Emergency Management Division assistance in appealing the decision and asks FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate to reconsider the decision to deny housing support, disaster crisis counseling, and disaster unemployment in Okanogan County and public assistance in Chelan County. The letter was sent by U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and U.S. Representatives Doc Hastings (WA-4) and Dave Reichert (WA-8).

“While we write to express our disappointment in the denial of Governor Inslee’s request for individual assistance in Okanogan County and public assistance in Chelan County, we request that you and your staff at FEMA Headquarters and in Region X provide assistance to the Washington State Emergency Management Division to ensure any appeal filed by Governor Inslee includes the necessary data and information to be given full and due consideration,” the Members wrote in the letter.  “We also ask you to reconsider the decision to deny individual assistance with housing support, disaster crisis counseling, and disaster unemployment in Okanogan County and public assistance in Chelan County.”

The full text of the letter follows: 

The Honorable W. Craig Fugate
Administrator
Federal Emergency Management Agency
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
500 C Street Southwest
Washington, DC  20472

Dear Administrator Fugate:

We write to express our disappointment in the denial of Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s request for individual assistance in Okanogan County and public assistance in Chelan County.

While the Washington State Emergency Management Division (EMD) works with Chelan County and Okanogan County to gather additional data on the damage to infrastructure and to improve the fidelity of cost estimates, we request you and your staff at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Headquarters and in Region X provide assistance to EMD to ensure any appeal filed by Governor Inslee includes the necessary data and information to be given full and due consideration. We also ask you to reconsider the decision to deny individual assistance for housing support, disaster crisis counseling, and disaster unemployment in Okanogan County and public assistance in Chelan County.

As you know, Washington state is having one of the worst wildfire seasons in its history. Lightning storms in the region sparked more than 150 fires in mid-July, and new starts have continued to occur through August. To date, wildfires in Washington state have consumed more than 350,000 acres of land, five times the annual average of acres burned. Wildfires this season have broken nearly every state record –more acres scorched, more homes and businesses burned, and more critical infrastructure damaged or destroyed than in any previous season.

The Carlton Complex wildfire across Okanogan and Chelan Counties and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation exemplifies the intensity and concentrated nature of these firestorms. This wildfire was ignited on July 14, 2014, and has grown to become the largest in Washington state history – scorching more than 400 square miles. The Carlton Complex alone has forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 Okanogan County residents, and destroyed more than 450 structures, including more than 300 family homes. The estimated assessed value of these home losses is $28 million. Additionally, the Washington Insurance Commissioner estimates that 45-percent of these homes are uninsured losses. Without assistance, these losses will financially devastate hundreds of families.

Compounding the loss of these houses is the lack of unoccupied housing in Okanogan County. While local hotels are normally relied upon to address disaster-triggered housing shortages, the County’s thriving summer and fall tourism industry has significantly diminished the number of rooms available to displaced Okanogan County households. Combined, this has created an acute housing shortage. Given that many of the families and individuals displaced by these fires work within the agricultural and tourism industries, their potential relocation out of Okanogan County threatens the long-term economic outlook of their communities. As you can see, federal assistance is needed immediately to stem this housing shortage and protect the region’s future economic health.

We are proud that Washington state is home to a strong agriculture economy, with farmers, ranchers, and agriculture businesses located throughout our state. Okanogan County is no exception. The County supported more than 1,440 farms in 2012 and is a major producer of apples, cherries, pears, forage, wheat, and cattle with a market value of $287 million. Of the Washingtonians living in Okanogan County, approximately 45-percent of the total workforce is tied to the agriculture sector. However, as the Carlton Complex wildfire moved through Okanogan County it killed an estimated 1,000 cattle, blackened thousands of acres of grazing land, scorched more than 100 acres of orchard, and destroyed critical farming equipment, including at least 30 miles of orchard fencing used to protect the tree fruit from deer and other pests. Despite these losses, the harvest must continue. However, because of the housing shortage our orchards are struggling to find enough labor to harvest crops.

Lastly, we would like to address the issue of whether losses were scattered or concentrated in a particular geographic area. Okanogan County is an extremely rural area of Washington state – composed of 5,315 square miles and an estimated population of 41,000 people. The more than 300 homes that were burned were either in unincorporated areas of the county or very small towns that are ill-equipped to deal with such monumental losses. For instance, losses were especially concentrated in the small town of Pateros, where 87 homes were destroyed. This town has 276 housing units and an estimated population of 660, of which more than a quarter are below the federal poverty level. In Pateros the fire devastated two square blocks when destroying 12 businesses and significantly damaging 10 more. In the Alta Lake neighborhood of Pateros alone, the fire destroyed more than 40 homes. In total, more than 30-percent of all housing units were destroyed in this small town. While this is one example, you can see the damage caused by these wildfires is significant and in spite of the large, rural geographic area the damage is in most cases highly concentrated.

Local communities and state agencies have responded admirably, but a disaster of this magnitude requires long-term federal assistance to help these communities respond, rebuild, and cope with this tragedy. Because there are no comparable Washington state programs, FEMA assistance with housing and household goods is necessary. As Governor Inslee indicated by making his request for assistance, the state does not have housing or a disaster program able to meet the needs of those impacted by the fire and is simply unable to address these losses without federal assistance.  

While we write to express our disappointment in the denial of Governor Inslee’s request for individual assistance in Okanogan County and public assistance in Chelan County, we request that you and your staff at FEMA Headquarters and in Region X provide assistance to the Washington State Emergency Management Division to ensure any appeal filed by Governor Inslee includes the necessary data and information to be given full and due consideration. We also ask you to reconsider the decision to deny individual assistance with housing support, disaster crisis counseling, and disaster unemployment in Okanogan County and public assistance in Chelan County.

Thank you in advance for your quick attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Patty Murray
United States Senator

Maria Cantwell
United States Senator

Doc Hastings
Member of Congress

Dave Reichert
Member of Congress

Cc: The Honorable Jeh Johnson, Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Elizabeth Zimmerman, Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of Response & Recovery, Federal Emergency Management Agency