PHOENIX — Gov. Jan Brewer asked President Obama on Wednesday to overrule a decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that the Yarnell Hill Fire does not qualify as a disaster.
In a five-page letter, the governor acknowledged only nine of the 108 homes destroyed in the blaze that took the lives of 19 firefighters were uninsured.
Federal law says aid is not available if there is insurance. And FEMA said in a statement that the “damage to uninsured private residences from this event was not beyond the response and recovery capabilities of the state (and) local governments and voluntary agencies.”
But Brewer said new evidence uncovered since the original denial last month has found new evidence of losses.
One, she said, is that the 17 of the homes were “underinsured.”
“This number certainly will increase as insurance payments are made and homeowners realize that their policies do not cover their losses,” the governor wrote to the president.
Further, estimates are it will take anywhere from $1.2 million to repair the damaged water system in Yarnell to $15 million for a complete renovation.
And Brewer wants specially trained professionals to help prevent further damage to the fire-ravaged area from threats such as runoff and flooding.
While the governor acknowledged federal laws and regulations on what constitutes a “disaster,” she said such a declaration would provide individual assistance to homeowners, including temporary housing, home repairs and even replacement of uninsured items lost in the fire.
Money also could go to government agencies.
Brewer, however, called what happened in Yarnell “unique,” saying the community has “been completely and totally destroyed.”
In actuality, even Brewer in her letter to Obama said the damage, while extensive, amounted to only about one-fifth of the homes.
Her request to the president also cited “a tremendous amount of trauma from the incident, the most common sentiment being a sense of guilt that so many firefighters were lost trying to save their lives and homes.”
That last factor, while tragic, is apparently legally irrelevant to the question of whether the community qualifies for disaster relief.
Even U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, who represents the affected area, conceded that what occurred in Yarnell is not of the same caliber as the “big catastrophes” that normally get such a designation, like hurricanes. Still, he and other members of the state’s congressional delegation from both parties backed the appeal to Obama.
“We have to have a better application of the law,” Gosar said. “And I think that’s what laws were built for is exceptions to those rules based upon the smaller application to a smaller community.”
Gosar was one of several members of the state’s congressional delegation who voted last year against federal disaster relief legislation in the wake of superstorm Sandy.
But Gosar press aide Orlando Watson pointed to statements Gosar made about the vote on the $50 billion Sandy package, calling it “a bill stuffed with pork but sold as aid,” versus one devoted solely to recovery efforts.
Brewer said there are other factors that support the appeal.
She said 55.6 percent of households in Yarnell are classified as low-income, with the median income for the 649 people listed as living there at the 2010 census at $24,792. And she said more than a third of the residents are elderly.
“This is a disaster,” Brewer said. “And it is not, I believe, Arizona’s responsibility.”
A response to the appeal is due to the state 90 days after the appeal.
Federal disaster aid aside, a separate fundraising effort by the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group has about $280,000 in its own bank account after spending nearly $38,000 for local business help and temporary housing. Spokeswoman Kathy Montgomery said that, with other commitments, about $1.25 million is available, though she pegs the total need at close to $6 million.
The lightning-caused fire that started June 28 burned about 8,400 acres. It also claimed the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who apparently were caught unaware when the wind direction suddenly changed.