Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Justice

Washington Town Wiped Out By Wildfire Will Get Delayed Federal Aid

Photo caption:

Photo by Kirk Siegler NPR

A wildfire raced through Malden, Wash., on Labor Day, 2020. Residents had only a few minutes to evacuate and returned to a largely destroyed town.

In Washington state, federal aid is finally coming to a struggling farming community that was nearly decimated by a wildfire last Labor Day.

The Biden administration on Thursday approved a presidential disaster declaration that had been held up by former President Trump for nearly five months due to a reported political fight with Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee. Such presidential declarations are typically routine after major disasters and similar aid requests by Oregon and California — which experienced even more destruction last fall — were approved by Trump administration officials in short order.

The latest FEMA aid package will specifically support nine counties and two tribes in eastern Washington. In a statement, Inslee acknowledged it was a long time coming.

"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," he said.

The news is a relief in Malden, where a wind-driven range fire that ignited in nearby wheat fields destroyed nearly 80% of the small town on Labor Day. As the delay wore on, town officials had been forced to turn to private donations for help, warning the delay in federal aid threatened the town's ability to even recover, let alone start to rebuild.

"It was hard on us, it was definitely punishing," said Scott Hokonson, a town councilman. "If that was its intent, it definitely had an effect."

Hokonson, who also lost his home in the fire, has been serving as the town's recovery coordinator. He says the delay further eroded residents' belief in government.

"When people lose trust and faith in elected officials and people trying to help, it becomes more and more difficult each day," Hokonson told NPR.

Eastern Washington leans conservative and Malden had lately become one of the few communities in the region where housing was still deemed affordable. Most of the fire survivors are lower-income, elderly and have little or no insurance.

The disaster declaration will help pay to rebuild public infrastructure. Town officials are still awaiting word on a separate request to support direct aid to fire survivors to help pay for housing and other support, though they're expecting that to be approved too in the coming days.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

FEATURED PODCAST

San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Need help keeping up with the news that matters most? Get the day's top news — ranging from local to international — straight to your inbox each weekday morning.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Curious San Diego banner

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.