State federal delegation backs Inslee’s request for major disaster declaration

PRESS RELEASE

Washington, D.C.—Today, the federal delegation representing impacted areas in Washington state sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to grant the major disaster declaration that was requested by Governor Jay Inslee. 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 local communities and state agencies have responded admirably, a disaster of this magnitude requires long-term federal assistance to help these communities respond, rebuild, and cope with this tragedy,” the members wrote in the letter. “We fully support Governor Inslee’s request for a major disaster declaration that includes hazard mitigation, public assistance, and individual assistance. The public assistance requested by Governor Inslee is vital to restoring public infrastructure damaged by the wildfires. Further, individual assistance with housing support, disaster crisis counseling, disaster unemployment, and other supports will help meet the needs of the families, business owners, and other community members who are struggling in the aftermath of this disaster.”

The full text of the letter follows:

August 6, 2014

 

The Honorable Barack Obama

President of the United States

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest

Washington, DC 20500

 

Dear Mr. President:

We write to urge you to approve as quickly as possible the federal major disaster declaration requested this week by Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

We are grateful for your quick approval on July 23, 2014, of Governor Inslee’s request for a federal emergency disaster declaration (FEMA-3371-EM). However, as the magnitude of these wildfires has grown with time, so too has the long-term personal and economic effects on the small, rural communities in Washington. The emergency declaration, while vital in supporting the immediate response of the firefighters to save lives and property, is inadequate to support the long-term needs of individual families or the public entities throughout the region.

As you know, Washington state is having the worst wildfire season in years. Wildfires burning in Counties throughout Central and Eastern Washington have stretched our state’s wildfire fighting resources thin. Lightning storms in the region sparked more than 150 fires in mid-July, and new starts have continued to occur in August. Several of the starts in July merged to form the Mills Canyon, Carlton Complex, and Chiwaukum Complex wildfires. To date, wildfires in Washington state have consumed more than 350,000 acres of land, this is five times the average annual acres burned.

Ignited on July 14, 2014, the Carlton Complex wildfire in Okanogan and Chelan Counties has grown to become the largest wildfire in Washington state history. This wildfire alone has forced the evacuation of hundreds and has destroyed more than 450 structures, including family homes, businesses, outbuildings, and seasonal multi-family farmworker housing. The Chiwaukum Complex and Mills Canyon wildfires in Chelan County have burned nearly 40,000 acres. While thousands of personnel have responded to control these two wildfires, the Chiwaukum Complex remains only 35-percent contained. These three fires have caused significant damage to public infrastructure in Central Washington and will have lasting effects on these communities.

Together, Mills Canyon, Carlton Complex, and Chiwaukum Complex wildfires have destroyed more than 300 homes, mostly in Okanogan County. Given the already low levels of unoccupied housing in Okanogan County, the loss of these homes has created an acute housing shortage. While local hotels are normally relied upon to address disaster-triggered housing shortages, the ongoing and economically vital tourist season has significantly diminished the number of rooms available to displaced Okanogan County households. Federal assistance is needed immediately to stem this housing shortage before it grows into a crisis.

The region’s public infrastructure has sustained enormous damage due to the wildfires. The Carlton Complex wildfire has destroyed 345 miles of distribution lines, 21 miles of transmission lines, and more than 85 miles of fiber optic lines owned by the Okanogan Public Utility District (PUD) – all of which must be replaced. The damage caused by the fire resulted in loss of power service to 3,602 Okanogan PUD customers and approximately 3,500 Okanogan Cooperative customers. Additionally, at least 7,100 PUD customers were without power and telecommunications services for extended periods of time. During one 14 hour period, nearly all of Okanogan County lacked access to any telecommunication services, including cellular networks, broadband networks, and 911 emergency operators. Rebuilding these public utilities will take months and federal assistance is seriously needed.

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 resulting in $287 million in agriculture sales. Of the estimated 41,000 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 cattle, blackened thousands of acres of grazing land, scorched orchards, and destroyed critical farming equipment, including miles of orchard fencing used to protect the fruit from deer. The power outages further compounded these losses. Without power, irrigation pumps would not operate and farmers struggled to water the crops spared by the wildfires. Further, because power outages disrupted refrigeration in cold storage facilities, producers saw harvested crops that were awaiting packing and shipping perish. With so much of Okanogan County’s workforce tied to the agricultural industry, the losses suffered have resulted in significant hardship for the local economy and residents of Central Washington.

During the past weeks, we have worked closely with the affected communities in Okanogan and Chelan Counties, and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. We have heard many heartbreaking stories from constituents who lost everything when their homes were destroyed by wildfire, including a family of seven. But we have also heard stories of generosity and bravery that best characterize the steely and determined nature of these communities – stories of neighbors who banded together to fight back flames licking at their doorstep and stories of fathers who worked tirelessly to save their children’s school from burning. These citizens are proud and fiercely independent people accustomed to taking care of their own and handling situations within their community, making their calls for help all the more meaningful.

We are enormously proud of the thousands of firefighters, volunteers, and soldiers from multiple local and state agencies who have responded heroically to this disaster. We are grateful for all those who have traveled from Colorado, Oregon, Montana, and other jurisdictions to lend their assistance in firefighting. We also deeply appreciate the commitment of the many citizens, volunteers, charities, businesses, and local elected and appointed officials who have risen to serve their neighbors during this very difficult time.

While local communities and state agencies have responded admirably, a disaster of this magnitude requires long-term federal assistance to help these communities respond, rebuild, and cope with this tragedy. We fully support Governor Inslee’s request for a major disaster declaration that includes hazard mitigation, public assistance, and individual assistance. The public assistance requested by Governor Inslee is vital to restoring public infrastructure damaged by the wildfires. Further, individual assistance with housing support, disaster crisis counseling, disaster unemployment, and other supports will help meet the needs of the families, business owners, and other community members who are struggling in the aftermath of this disaster.

We therefore urge you to grant Governor Inslee’s request in its entirety as soon as possible. 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

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