Washington state governor requests federal aid for survivors of August wildfires
Oct 5, 2023, 1:38 PM
BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has formally requested federal aid and a major disaster declaration to help people recover from deadly wildfire destruction in August in the eastern part of the state.
The Democratic governor said in a news release Wednesday that he sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to make financial help available for people affected by the Gray fire and Oregon Road fire through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s individual assistance program.
“This disaster has destroyed more primary homes than any other wildfire in Washington state history,” Inslee wrote in his 44-page letter. “The scale of destruction is immense and has exhausted all local and state resources to adequately support the response and recovery to this major disaster.”
Nearly 450 primary homes were damaged or destroyed by the two fires, according to the letter.
Inslee also used his letter to request help from federal agencies with debris management and disposal, with a focus on keeping debris and contaminants out of local waterways.
Both fires ignited Aug. 18 in extreme fire weather conditions that included wind speeds over 20 mph (32 kph) with gusts topping 30 mph (48 kph), hampering the work of firefighters, the letter said.
The Gray fire in and around the small city of Medical Lake and the Oregon Road fire near Elk prompted evacuations of some 5,000 residents. Water quality was affected and power to nearly 34,000 customers was cut. A section of Interstate 90 was closed for two days because of the Gray fire. Two people died trying to escape the flames and a third person was badly burned, Inslee said.
That man, Justin Knutsen, recently returned to his community after receiving care for second-degree burns from the Oregon Road fire, Susan Gregg, a spokesperson for Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, said in a news release Thursday. His doctors expect he will fully recover.
His home was among those destroyed in the fire and Knutsen said he hopes to help lead his community’s efforts to rebound from the disaster.
“I own my own construction business and so (do) a couple of my friends,” Knutsen said in the hospital’s news release. “I’m just excited to get together with them and start rebuilding the whole community.”
The governor previously declared a statewide emergency because of the two fires and others that burned throughout the state this year.
Democratic Washington state U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, along with Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, also sent a letter to Biden on Wednesday, supporting Inslee’s federal request.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources is investigating the cause of the fires. Two lawsuits blame a power utility for the Gray fire’s ignition. Inland Power and Light Company officials have said the cause hasn’t been determined and declined to comment further.