The Fourmile Fire was Colorado’s largest wildfire disaster in history. But in terms of becoming a declared federal disaster with assistance for individual homeowners who lost their property –- 169 homes lost to the tune of an estimated $214 million in insured loss -– last September’s fire never made it past the starting blocks.
County officials are still shaking their heads at the fact the state of Colorado never even submitted the fire to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for consideration. As reports of underinsured homeowners have surfaced, local authorities now nervously wait to see how many homeowners can afford to rebuild, all while watching for potentially disastrous spring flooding in the foothills west of Boulder.
“Whatever the rules are, I think they should be applied evenly across the country,” Boulder County Commissioner Ben Pearlman said. “My goal was just to be treated like any other community across the country … and we saw that other fires in other locations across the country may have gotten different treatment.”
At a glance, that would appear to be true. Many smaller and similarly sized disasters — measured by the only yardstick available, estimated insured homeowner loss — have received FEMA emergency grants for individuals. According to FEMA records, that includes the 2008 Windsor, Colorado, tornado ($193.5 million); the 2002 Colorado fire season as a whole ($82 million, adjusted for inflation); and the 2009 Oklahoma wildfires ($30 million).
Ultimately, Colorado Division of Emergency Management Director Hans Kallam said he made the decision not to recommend that then-Gov. Bill Ritter request a disaster declaration from President Barack Obama. Kallam said he did so on the advice from FEMA Region VIII officials that the high percentage of insured homes in the 7,000-acre fire area, together with the emergency resources already in place, made such a declaration unnecessary, perhaps illegitimate.
“I think if Gov. Ritter had been running for re-election he would have submitted it,” Kallam said. “But it would have been turned down. I’d stake my career on it.” (Former Gov. Ritter did not answer an e-mail seeking comment.)
Welcome to the almost-always-political-but-sometimes-interesting arena of disaster relief as prescribed by FEMA, in which the rules are vague but the rewards substantial. Here, a question as simple as “Has there ever been a wildfire this damaging that was not declared a FEMA disaster?” can’t be answered but there are probably 100 good reasons why New York City and its Metropolitan Transit Authority deserved $69 million this year for snow removal.
Normally, whether public agencies qualify for relief is determined by how much infrastructure loss is suffered and the size of the affected agency, FEMA Region 8 spokesman Ed Conley said. So a minor infrastructure loss for Boulder County might not qualify, whereas if that same loss was suffered by a small city, it might quality. The criteria of a disaster declaration with regard to relief for individuals is necessarily vague, he said.
“I think that’s the intent of the program,” said Conley, noting that more remote areas of the nation often don’t have much in the way of emergency services. “That way, if there’s no other options and assistance is needed, the president can authorize it.”
Certainly the Fourmile Fire received a good share of federal and state assistance, with millions in federal money helping to pay for the cost of fighting the fire and also for the rehabilitation work. Access to the Small Business Administration’s low-interest loan program, available both to homeowners and business owners who suffered losses in the fire, was quickly authorized. However, participation approval in that program has not been high — only about $1.7 million in approved loans.
But a disaster declaration could have also carried with it hundreds of thousands of dollars of potential grants for individuals, county officials believe. While most of this assistance doesn’t apply to replacing insured homes, there is money available for temporary housing, including for renters; disaster losses not covered by insurance; related medical costs; replacement of vehicles and clothing; moving costs; and, perhaps importantly for the Fourmile area, disaster unemployment insurance.
For Garry Sanfacon, head of Boulder County’s Fourmile Fire Recovery Center, there’s little doubt Fourmile Fire victims could have tapped into that assistance — especially since many of the victims had home-based businesses.
“Absolutely, it could have made a difference,” he said.
FEMA never completed a formal assessment for such a presidential declaration, because it was never requested by the governor, an outgoing Democrat facing a disaster request from a county that is a Democratic stronghold in the state. In the end, very few actual requests by governors for disaster declaration are turned down by the president, said another FEMA spokesman, Jerome DeFelice.
However, the FEMA spokesmen said there was goundwork supporting Kallam’s decision not to request a declaration.
“The intent is basic emergency assistance. To make sure people have a safe place to live,” Conley said. “FEMA individual assistance isn’t to make you whole. That’s what the SBA (Small Business Administration) program is supposed to help do. FEMA is primarily emergency housing needs.”
Kallam said he decided early on not to pursue the disaster declaration in part to allow the SBA assistance to go through without the delay of awaiting a presidential response. County officials maintain they were not aware an application had not been made until after the 30-day window had passed, but Kallam said it was clear from the beginning that no declaration would be sought.
“I’m no expert on FEMA. … but if we had requested, they (FEMA officials) said they would end up recommending disapproval,” Kallam said in an initial interview. “If they said this was not close to qualifying I believe them.”
Following notification that this article was being prepared, however, Kallam’s office released a newly prepared 13-point memo regarding the decision. In that document, all 13 criteria for a declaration are rated as “minimal,” including the number of homes destroyed (because, it says, of an estimated 85 percent to 90 percent insurance rate), the concentration of damage (estimated over the county and not the 7,000-acre devastated fire footprint), lack of assistance from other sources, and a comparison of resources that might have been made available by declaration.
“If it had been a gray area, then maybe you would have said, ‘OK, go ahead,’” Kallam said. “But when all 13 are minimal …”
FEMA officials steered away from any direct comparisons among disasters. However, Conley said that many declared disasters occur in floodplains, for instance, where flood insurance may not be available and the majority of homeowners may already live near the poverty line. Such data can be stunning. For instance, in the 2009 Oklahoma wildfires, the governor’s request estimated that only 40 percent of the homes damaged were insured, according to FEMA documents.
So the relative affluence of the Fourmile area and the disaster preparedness by local, county and state organizations may have helped pave the way for the lack of a declaration. And when it comes to rebuilding, county officials may have made it more problematic with strict building codes in the wildland-urban interface and other green building codes that have raised the price of building new homes.
What’s curious, Pearlman said, is the FEMA rules may tend to favor poor building practices in the wildland-urban interface and other disaster-prone areas. But in the end, he said, it’s all water under the bridge.
“I would have thought the state would have made that application to the federal government just to keep open that possibility. If I knew then what I know now we would have pressed for it,” Pearlman said. “And we are very grateful to the outpouring of support that has come from the federal and state government and other sources … but it does raise policy issues.
“A bigger fire is going to occur in Colorado’s wildland-urban interface,” he said, “and some other community is going to be facing these issues.”