Yarnell Hill Fire update: Gov. Brewer appeals disaster denial

PHOENIX - Gov. Jan Brewer on Wednesday appealed the federal government's denial of disaster assistance for the June wildfire that killed 19 firefighters and destroyed more than 100 homes in the town of Yarnell.

Brewer said the uninsured damage has gone up and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn't take into account the high number of poor and elderly residents in Yarnell when it denied the disaster declaration request last month. She also said the agency's denial increases the risk the town faces from flooding because a federal team she requested to rehabilitate the burned area was part of the denial.

"The deadliest fire in Arizona's history has been a traumatic, devastating event for all of Arizona, but most especially the communities of Yarnell, Peeples Valley and Prescott," Brewer said. She noted that President Barack Obama promised to help the communities recover.

"Such disaster relief would do so much for Arizona, not the least of which is help homeowners who lost everything - just as the federal government helps hurricane and other disaster victims."

Truman Ferrell's backyard in Yarnell looks like an oasis, complete with a coy pond, hummingbirds and apple trees. 

But the fire crept right up to the edge of his property, and destroyed his neighborhood. His house was the only one left standing.

Truman says it's been hard watching his neighbors lose their homes. 

"I know it's devastating, but I said, 'still, if you have each other, you haven't lost anything.'"

But there have been some glimmers of hope against the bleak background of blackened earth.

Green grass and even some gardens have begun to grow again.

"Thank goodness that wasn't destroyed by the fire," Truman said, looking at his neighbor's garden.

For now, the clean-up continues as residents wait to see if federal aid will come down. They say they feel like they're in limbo.

"We sure could use a lot of help from the federal government," Truman said.

Four of Arizona's nine House members attended Brewer's press conference announcing the appeal. Republican Rep. Paul Gosar said all are expected to sign a letter urging the government to reconsider.

"This area is a very resilient area, and they don't ask much," Gosar said. "They ask the federal government to be equal in its application of the law."

FEMA told Brewer in its denial letter that the damage to uninsured private homes was not so severe that state, local and volunteer agencies couldn't handle the problems, and it repeated that analysis in response to inquiries Wednesday. Agency regulations require it to consider many factors when reviewing a disaster aid request, including insurance coverage, recent multiple disasters and other available federal assistance programs.

Brewer said nine of the 108 destroyed homes were uninsured and 17 underinsured, but that number is likely to go up.

Yavapai County Emergency Management Coordinator Denny Foulk said Wednesday that he counted 11 uninsured homes and about 30 that were underinsured. He placed a rough value on the uninsured homes at $1.1 million and the underinsured at $3 million.

The town's water system was also damaged, in some cases because firefighter use drained its pipes and then they collapsed when heavy equipment drove above them. Basic repairs could cost about $1.2 million, replacing sections of water line $8 million, and a complete overhaul would be $15 million, he said.

Paying for a complete rebuild of the water system and covering the uninsured losses is less than $20 million, but Brewer said the state should not have to use its hefty reserves to pay for the recovery.

"We all pay taxes to the federal government, and this is a disaster," Brewer said. "It is not, I believe, Arizona's responsibility."

A community organization, the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group, had collected $318,000 as of mid-August and had a total of $1.25 million committed for rebuilding. According to a financial statement posted on its website, the group has spent about $38,000 for temporary housing and other costs and plans to help uninsured residents rebuild homes using labor from volunteer groups like Habitat for Humanity.

The FEMA denial noted that the state could request disaster loan assistance from the Small Business Administration. Brewer noted in her response that the SBA's rules won't let it act while the state is appealing the denial.

The fire was sparked by lightning on June 28, and trapped the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30 as it barreled toward Yarnell. The fire burned 8,400 acres before it was controlled on July 12.

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