Governor Jerry Brown and the feds declared a state of emergency when the Rim Fire broke out at Yosemite in August, a week after what turned out to be California third-largest wildfire ever roared to life.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authorized funds to assist fire-fighting activities as the flames threatened 2,434 homes in and around communities with a combined population 9,697. The fire also threatened the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir, power lines and watersheds.
The fire burned through September and was 95% contained by October 8 when the governor wrote to President Barack Obama and FEMA, asking them to declare Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties a major disaster area and extend federal aid to local government and residents. The spirited plea detailed widespread infrastructure damage, stressed emergency services, and the loss of 98 buildings, including the city of Berkeley’s Tuolumne Family Camp. The fire burned more than 260,000 acres and estimated fire costs exceeded $70 million.
Last week the federal government rejected the appeal.
In his response to Brown, FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate used boilerplate language sent to other losers, like victims of Tropical Storm Hermine and Tropical Storm Issac: “Based on our review of all of the information available, it has been determined that the damage from this event was not of such severity and magnitude as to be beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments. Accordingly, we have determined that supplemental federal assistance is not necessary.”
Brown’s letter singled out Mariposa County government for assistance. There are no incorporated cities in the county, it has no street lights and there are just 18,251 residents. The county’s unemployment rate is 11.9%. But it depleted its contingency fund during the fire and was running a $230,000 deficit.
Tuolumne County Administrator Craig Pedro told a reporter for The Union Democrat that the FEMA calculation for determining damage fell below its threshold for action because it did not properly account for law enforcement. The state has 30 days to appeal the decision and Brown’s deputy director of emergency services, Kelly Huston, told the San Francisco Chronicle it would.
Huston said damage assessments were still being made by local communities and she expected them to rise.
FEMA’s stated mission is “to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain, and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate all hazards.”