The Evans Canyon Fire started Aug. 31 several miles north of Naches. Over the next couple of weeks, it burned 118 square miles in Yakima and Kittitas counties, destroyed six homes and forced more than 900 families to evacuate.
On Sept. 7, while the Evans Canyon fire continued, the Babb Fire began. This blaze eventually pretty much burned to the ground the neighboring cities of Malden and Pine City, about 25 miles south of Spokane in Whitman County.
On Sept. 16, Gov. Jay Inslee sought a major disaster declaration from President Donald Trump for the Babb Fire. All 12 members of Washington’s congressional delegation offered support for Inslee’s request. In early October, Inslee expanded the request to include assistance to eight other counties in Central and Eastern Washington (including Yakima and Kittitas), along with the Yakama and Colville tribes.
That request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency has now been approved — by President Joe Biden, two weeks into his term. This after the request sat for months on Trump’s desk while the president OK’d numerous similar requests for disaster aid from other states.
Biden’s approval of the major disaster declaration is a huge relief to this part of our state, opening up federal aid for communities affected by wildfires. Hopefully it’s not the last word; we would encourage the Biden administration to move quickly on a further request for individual assistance.
“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,” Inslee said in a recent statement, adding that he is hopeful individual assistance will follow.
And while we’re not complaining, the timing and other circumstances of this decision raise eyebrows nonetheless. Biden’s action is laced with irony and brings to a conclusion a chapter on petty politics at its absolute worst.
Why did this obvious and logical request sit on Trump’s desk all those months despite numerous letters and other bipartisan communications from our senators and congressional representatives seeking approval?
If you believe an aide to U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Spokane Republican who represents Whitman County, the sad but simple answer is because Donald Trump and Jay Inslee don’t much like each other. The aide shared her views last month in a story in the Spokesman-Review of Spokane. “The holdup now is the relationship between the president and Gov. Inslee,” said the aide, who requested anonymity.
While difficult to prove, this explanation makes sense, as Inslee and Trump did not keep their animosity for one another secret. Trump called Inslee “a snake,” “a nasty person” and “not a good governor,” among other things. And Inslee, for his part, consistently and pointedly criticized Trump’s policies on environmental issues.
Shortly before his September request for disaster relief, Inslee took on Trump’s climate beliefs in an open letter.
“Mr. President, I hope you had an enlightening trip to the West Coast, where your refusal to address climate change — and your active steps to enable even more carbon pollution — will accelerate devastating wildfires like those you’re seeing today. I implore you to recognize the science behind this destruction and stop your path of distortion and deception,” Inslee wrote Sept. 14.
Two days later, Inslee submitted his request. Trump never took action — and by his inaction, he left many Washingtonians in disaster-aid limbo. FEMA aid often needs to be settled one way or another before other aid becomes available.
Is there a lesson in how to make friends and influence people here somewhere? Perhaps.
Finally, let’s not forget the irony of who quickly OK’d the relief and who refused to do so — and who will be receiving this relief.
In general, residents of Central and Eastern Washington lean Republican. In fire-ravaged Malden, 67% voted for Trump in the 2020 election. Yet it was the newly elected Democratic president who put politics aside and approved the relief designation.
“They have Trump signs, they have Trump hats, they have Trump things on their trucks,” Scott Hokonson told the Spokesman-Review, speaking of his Malden neighbors. “Or they did, before they all burned.”