The decision came just one day after President Joe Biden approved federal aid for Malden and Pine City, along with other areas in Eastern Washington, nearly five months after the devastating wildfires. In a letter to Governor Jay Inslee, Associate Administrator of the Office of Response and Recovery David Bibo wrote, "It has been determined that the impact to the individuals and households from this event was not of such severity and magnitude to warrant the designation of Individual Assistance under FEMA-4584-DR."
The Pine Creek Community Restoration Facebook page posted about the letter on Monday.
"The Town of Malden and the Pine Creek LTRO are deeply disappointed and disagree with this decision," the post says. "Despite the unfortunate denial of IA, we are still moving ahead and remain committed to rebuilding our communities as quickly as possible. The decision to appeal this IA denial lies with Washington State and we know that they have our best interests in mind and will continue to help us identify additional recovery resources whether from the State or the Federal government."
More than 85% of all buildings in Malden and Pine City, located in rural Whitman County, burned to the ground in the Babb Road Fire. Residents have not been able to clean up or rebuild since the wildfire sparked on Labor Day in 2020.
Malden Mayor Dan Harwood told KREM's Amanda Roley, "Malden has been kind of slapped in the face with this." He also said that while the town was thankful no one lost their life, it doesn't mean recovery has been easy.
"No one lost their life during the fire directly. For that we've got to be thankful, for that we've got to say a big thanks. But it doesn't make it easier for the people that are living in RVs, or are strung from Missoula, Montana, to Creston, Washington," Harwood said.
He also questioned what more the town needed to show to receive assistance.
"What more can you give them [than] 80% of your town? What more can the citizens lose than 100% of the homes? You can't ask people for more than that. It doesn't make any difference whether you're a Democrat or a Republican or an Independent, our kids, our citizens are hurting," Harwood said.
The mayor said they should get their application for disaster relief accepted by the Small Business Administration in the next few days to make low-interest loans available to citizens. In addition, Governor Jay Inslee's office said it will not appeal FEMA's decision, as doing so could hold up SBA assistance for months.
Harwood said the individual assistance from FEMA would have helped 60 percent of people who were underinsured or not insured at all.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers Communications Director Kyle VonEnde issued a statement about the decision saying:
“Cathy is disappointed by the decision to reject individual assistance for Whitman County. The individuals, families, and businesses need this assistance. Cathy and her entire team are working closely with FEMA, Senators Murray and Cantwell, and Governor Inslee to find the best path forward that delivers results for the communities devastated by these fires.”
Biden approves Major Disaster Declaration
Biden granted the request for a Major Disaster Declaration on Thursday, Feb. 4, triggering the release of funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide disaster relief for nine counties — including Whitman — and two tribes in Eastern Washington that were affected by the wildfires. His approval followed months of delays on aid from President Donald Trump's administration.
Washington state Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, along with Eastern Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, are among those who urged Biden to sign Governor Jay Inslee's September request for a statewide Major Disaster Declaration.
Harwood said on Thursday that the news felt like 100 pounds had been lifted from his back.
"We've had folks come in today," Harwood said. "And, you know, they've had tears in their eyes. I mean this is this is huge. It is the beginning, and we want folks to keep writing their, their senators and representatives the Governor Inslee and telling them thank you."
The financial assistance will help rebuild public infrastructure that suffered damage, including power lines, roads, and water and sewage systems.
"It's a baby step, but it is a huge step," Malden resident Kelly Adams said. We've just got to continue having patience and like the mayor said faith."
Washington state lawmakers respond to President Biden's declaration
Inslee released a statement on Thursday following Biden's approval of the Major Disaster Declaration request:
“Our state experienced extensive damage during last year’s wildfire season, particularly in Central and Eastern Washington. While it has been a long wait, I’m pleased to say the Biden administration has approved our Major Disaster Declaration request for nine counties and two tribes in Eastern Washington. This financial assistance will help rebuilding public infrastructure that suffered damage – things like power lines, roadways, fencing around public areas and water and sewage systems.
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.”
PHOTOS: Town of Malden nearly 5 months after wildfire
In a statement, McMorris Rodgers also applauded Biden's approval of the federal aid. She had previously sent three letters to Trump's administration urging approval of Inslee's request and spoke with him personally in December 2020.
In January 2020, McMorris Rodgers wrote to Biden in an effort to ensure Inslee's request "received attention and swift approval," according to her office.
Her full statement released in response to Biden's approval of the aid on Thursday is as follows:
“I visited Malden and Pine City days after the fire, and the devastation took my 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. 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.”
On Dec. 8, 2020, Sen. Murray also led Washington state's full congressional delegation in a letter to Trump and FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor urging approval of Inslee's request. This followed letters from the entire delegation first on Sept. 18 and then again on Oct. 13.
Senators Murray and Cantwell also wrote to Biden on Jan, 22, urging him to quickly approve Inslee's request.
Murray released the following statement after Biden's approval:
“I’m so glad that President Biden listened to the pleas of the communities and Tribes who have been devastated by wildfires, and moved quickly to grant a disaster declaration and relief after the previous administration’s delays. 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. 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.”
Sen. Cantwell also released a statement that reads, “No one should play politics with disaster relief. 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.”