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Marketplace

The case for calling wildfires natural disasters

Andy Uhler Aug 20, 2015
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Dozens of wildfires are raging throughout the West. In eastern Washington, three firefighters were killed Wednesday. Entire communities have been ordered to evacuate. Hundreds of homes and buildings have been destroyed. More than 230,000 acres have burned in Washington alone. This is a disaster, right? 

Many think so. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is asking the federal government to declare an emergency to provide more money to fight the fires. The U.S. Forest Service has already issued a request, and sponsored legislation, to have wildfires classed as natural disasters. That would free more money for fighting and maybe even preventing them.

One cluster of wildfires has burned more than 200 square miles in central Washington, threatening the resort town of Chelan. After weeks, the fires are only 50 percent contained, and strong winds and extreme dryness aren’t making it any easier.

Thomas Gormley, the general manager of Lakeside Lodge in Chelan, says his family hasn’t lost any buildings, but these fires are hurting his bottom line. 

“This is the biggest month of the year, revenue-wise, and we lost just about everything,” he says. “I don’t think that insurance-wise we would get any help or assistance there. I’m sure there may be some relief from the government, but I’m not sure what that would be.”

Tourism isn’t the only thing small communities in central and eastern Washington rely on. The timber industry has been a major source of revenue, as well. Jerry Bonagofsky, president of the Washington Contract Loggers Association, said these fires are causing the loss of major logging dollars. “Right now, virtually most of eastern Washington is at a fire precaution level four, which means there’s no industrial activity at all allowed,” he says.

The cost of fighting all these fires is also an issue. There are almost 20 active fires in Washington alone. Mike Ferris with the forest service is wondering where that money is going to come from. “We’ll probably tap what we have available this year,” he says. “It’s likely we’ll tap what we have available this year and exceed it.”

The forest service expects to spend more than half its budget on fighting fires this year. But it’s the mega-fires, like the one threatening Chelan, that it wants deemed natural disasters and subsequently funded at the level of flood or hurricane responses.

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