WASHINGTON — After a wildfire devastated the towns of Malden and Pine City last September, then-President Donald Trump withheld federal aid for months over a feud with Washington's governor, but a bill introduced Tuesday by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers aims to ensure that never happens again.
The legislation unveiled by the Eastern Washington Republican, who represents the scorched Whitman County towns, would automatically approve requests for a major disaster declaration if a president doesn't act within 30 days. It also would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to work more closely with state and local emergency officials and to send case workers to rural communities when some forms of aid are denied.
"People have to make decisions immediately following this kind of an emergency," McMorris Rodgers said. "That's why we included the provision that would require action very quickly, but also providing some guidance to the community to make sure that both in the short term and the long term, they understand what resources are available to them individually and as a community."
The residents of Malden and Pine City were stuck in limbo for more than four months while Trump ignored requests made by Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat who had criticized the former president, The Spokesman-Review reported in January.
On Feb. 4, two weeks after his inauguration, President Joe Biden approved Inslee's request for aid to help local governments rebuild after fires across the state. Days later, Biden denied a separate request for individual assistance that could have helped Malden and Pine City residents rebuild their homes after FEMA determined the fire that destroyed roughly 80% of homes in the two towns "was not of such severity and magnitude to warrant the designation."
"I think this bill helps depoliticize what should not be political," said Scott Hokonson, who has led a local recovery group since his home in Malden was destroyed in the fire. "We were told that one thing we could do that would help heal us was to affect legislation somehow. We could maybe not help ourselves, but we could help others in the future, and so this is a huge way to do that."
McMorris Rodgers is introducing the bill near the start of what seems likely to be another devastating fire season. As of Tuesday, more than 27,000 wildfires had burned a total of nearly 1 million acres across the country, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, while a historic drought grips the Western U.S.
Dubbed the "MALDEN Act" — for "Making Aid for Local Disasters Equal Now" — the legislation's title leaves no doubt it was crafted in response to Trump's refusal to send aid to Malden and Pine City, but it could help rural communities recover from disasters even in cases where a president doesn't willfully withhold federal help.
It would amend the Stafford Act, a 1988 law that governs federal emergency response efforts, to require FEMA to coordinate with state officials to help local emergency managers set up recovery teams and prevent secondary disasters like mudslides, rockslides and flooding.
"Since we didn't hear for so long, we had to cobble together our own response," Hokonson said. "That hands-on experience that we've gained through a lot of blood, sweat and toil, that could have been given to us on day one,"
Giving the example of a FEMA framework that outlines disaster response steps, he said the local recovery team "didn't even know about the existence of such a thing because FEMA wasn't at the table."
In addition, FEMA would be required to work with state emergency management agencies to provide disaster case workers when requests for individual assistance are denied. In an email, a FEMA spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.
In Malden and Pine City, some residents are now working to rebuild using loans from the Small Business Administration and other federal resources that became available only after Biden denied individual assistance, but that requires navigating complex bureaucratic systems. Many survivors of the fire have been living in trailers since the Labor Day disaster and rebuilding has been a largely volunteer-run effort.
The bill's chances of passage are unclear, but support from Democrats — who control which bills move forward in both the House and Senate — is a key factor. In an interview just before unveiling the bill, McMorris Rodgers wouldn't name other lawmakers who may cosponsor her legislation but said, "I know that there will be a lot of members on both sides of the aisle in the House and the Senate that are sympathetic to the concerns of small, rural communities."
A spokesperson for Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, did not immediately respond to questions about the legislation.
"Every fiber of my being says this legislation should be passed unanimously," Hokonson said. "I hope that our struggles, our pain and our suffering can illustrate so that others do not have to go through the same thing."
Fellow Democratic Sen. Patty Murray hadn't heard from McMorris Rodgers as of press time, but "looks forward to reviewing (the bill)," Murray press secretary Charlie Andrews said in an email.
"Our office has not received any outreach from Rep. McMorris about her newly introduced bill but looks forward to reviewing it in the future and certainly wants to ensure that every community in Washington state receives the emergency funds and federal support they deserve when the need arises and as has been the case under every administration except the last," a statement from Murray's office reads.
"As it relates to Malden, Senator Murray is glad that President Biden took swift and appropriate action to support Malden and the surrounding community nearly immediately after hearing directly from her and the Washington state delegation."