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Washington Town Wiped Out By Wildfire Will Get Delayed Federal Aid

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.
Kirk Siegler
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.

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As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.