Gov. Jan Brewer is asking the Federal Emergency Management Administration to reconsider its denial of disaster aid for the Yarnell Hill fire, saying new information proves that it’s needed and that the deadly-but-relatively-small blaze was destructive enough to warrant federal assistance.
Brewer on Wednesday announced her appeal of FEMA’s Aug. 9 decision not to declare the site of the Yarnell Hill fire as a major disaster area, which would have triggered substantial federal aid. The governor was joined by a bipartisan delegation including U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar, Trent Franks, Ann Kirkpatrick and Kyrsten Sinema, as well as state Rep. Karen Fann and state Sen. Steve Pierce. Fann, Gosar and Pierce represent Yavapai County, where the fire occurred.
FEMA concluded that the fire, which killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, was not so severe that it was beyond the capacity of the state, local governments and voluntary agencies to handle. Brewer said federal aid was warranted because of the devastation to residents, as well as substantial damage to the region’s water system.
“They are desperate. And we believe by the new facts that we have in the letter that they need to review and reconsider,” Brewer said during her press conference at the Executive Tower. “We just want them to do the job that they have done for all the other areas in previous disasters.”
The appeal, which was addressed directly to President Obama, as well as FEMA regional administrator Nancy Ward, emphasized the number of uninsured or underinsured homeowners who lost their houses in the fire. FEMA should also provide aid to due to the high number of “special populations” in Yarnell, Brewer wrote, including the 55.6 percent of residents who are low-income and the 35.6 percent of residents who are elderly.
A successful appeal requires the state to present new information. Brewer said the fire destroyed more homes than initially thought – 108, or 20 percent of the community’s homes – and rendered another 23 uninhabitable. Many homeowners have learned that their insurance policies won’t cover the full extent of their losses.
“I think there’s more houses, more structures that have been destroyed. We know that the water system is going to cost us a lot more money. We know that there are far more people that are underinsured than we originally had thought. We know that there are people that (are) completely and totally uninsured. And given the dynamics of the rural area in which they live, I think it puts a complete and total different perspective on it,” Brewer told reporters.
Brewer emphasized that Arizonans, including Yarnell residents, pay federal taxes, and said they should be treated the same as victims of other disasters.
Gosar, whose 4th Congressional District includes Yarnell, said the people of the area are resilient and don’t ask for much. But in this case, he said, the federal government must treat them the same as it would treat residents of urban areas who suffered similar fates.
The congressman also emphasized that Vice President Joseph Biden pledged that the federal government would support the people of Yarnell during the funeral for the fallen firefighters.
“He said that the federal government was going to be behind us, and I expect him to re-look at this and honor his word,” Gosar said.
Kirkpatrick, who represents a wide swath of rural Arizona, said after the press conference that FEMA should provide assistance because some of the burned area was on federal land.
Brewer made a similar point in her appeal letter, saying that FEMA’s denial doesn’t adequately address Arizona’s request for technical assistance from the federal Burned Area Emergency Response program. She said the state needs the federal government to conduct an analysis of the area’s soil to determine the severity of the damage, which is needed for watershed analysis that will help determine the flood risk for the area.
Additionally, Brewer asked Obama to direct the U.S. Small Business Administration to move forward on Arizona’s request for disaster assistance. FEMA suggested in its denial letter that the state reach out to the SBA, but the agency told Arizona it won’t act on the request until its appeal is ongoing, Brewer wrote.
FEMA spokesman Dan Watson said the agency already provided a federal grant to assist firefighting efforts during the Yarnell Hill blaze. Watson also said federal assistance is still available through other federal agencies, such as SBA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Watson defended FEMA’s decision not to declare a major disaster area. He said that by law, FEMA cannot duplicate benefits provided by private insurance companies or other federal agencies.
“In this case, based upon the findings of the joint federal, state and local preliminary damage assessment teams, it was determined that the damage to uninsured private residences from this event was not beyond the response and recovery capabilities of the state/local governments, and voluntary agencies,” Watson said in an email to the Arizona Capitol Times.