Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Federal grants for individual Black Forest fire victims denied

By Ryan Handy Published: August 2, 2013

Residents affected by the Black Forest fire have been denied individual financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after a presidential review of the fire's damages determined that the area did not qualify for that particular federal grant.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, who applied for the presidential disaster declaration that a week ago awarded El Paso County many other types of aid, has 30 days to appeal the decision. In the meantime, El Paso County and those affected by the Black Forest fire can apply for FEMA public and private assistance grants to pay for damage to public infrastructure, as well as unemployment assistance.

The fire, which started June 11, burned more than 14,000 acres, destroyed 488 homes and killed two people.

On Friday morning, regional FEMA representatives and the El Paso County Commission hosted an information session for the public assistance grants, which are available to county governments, school districts and utility companies, among others.

Unless residents are looking for grief counseling or help with unemployment, the federal government cannot help them meet their financial needs, said Kevin Klein, director of the Colorado Office of Emergency Management, which is responsible for handling the FEMA grants on the local level. At least one resident came to Friday's meeting seeking financial assistance because he was underinsured when the Black Forest fire destroyed his home.

"There's not much we can do for uninsured losses," Klein told him.

The governor's request to declare the Black Forest fire a federal disaster included a provision for FEMA's Individuals and Households Program, which gives individual homeowners money to help cover damage costs. Last week, President Barack Obama declared the Black Forest fire a disaster and granted El Paso County eligibility for several types of grants. But a decision on whether fire victims could get the individual homeowners' portion of the declaration wasn't made until Thursday, and it was denied because federal officials determined that state and local governments and nonprofit agencies have the capability to to provide "emergency temporary housing and essential personal property needs," FEMA officials said. Also, FEMA said the preliminary damage assessment showed a high rate of insurance coverage on destroyed homes, and federal disaster assistance is prohibited from duplicating insurance assistance.

El Paso County commissioners, as well as the community recovery group Black Forest Together, are considering other ways to help the underinsured or uninsured by appealing to nonprofits in the region.

Through most of June and into July, FEMA representatives worked with El Paso County officials to assess the damage wrought by the fire. The first assessments estimated about $11.9 million of damage to public infrastructure, such as gas lines or public buildings.

The Black Forest fire was granted more categories of FEMA aid than the Waldo Canyon fire, said Marilyn Galley, with the state office of emergency management. During the Waldo Canyon fire, state and local officials requested a presidential disaster declaration while the fire was raging and before they comprehended the full extent of the damage, Galley said.

El Paso County was only eligible for reimbursement of fire suppression costs and debris removal and emergency protective measures grants - which FEMA calls categories A and B - after the Waldo Canyon fire.

"Last year, we requested a disaster declaration during the event," Galley said. "You don't have a lot of hard numbers; you are projecting what could happen. So last year, when we were granted the disaster declaration, we were limited to emergency protective measures."

The state later appealed the decision to limit the grants to two categories, but the appeal was denied.

"This year, we went through the fires, and after the fires were over, we did the traditional damage assessment," Galley said.

As a result, the Black Forest fire was given all categories of FEMA public assistance aid, which included a Fire Management Assistance Grant that helps pay fire suppression costs. It also helped that the state requested separate disaster declarations for the Royal Gorge and Black Forest fires instead of combining its request, as was done last year with the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires, Galley said.

The public assistance funds will not make beneficiaries whole again, but they will help, Galley cautioned. Public assistance grants will cover 75 percent of costs linked to fire damage. Those who are eligible for public assistance must have at least $1,000 in damages, must not be part of a federally supported group and cannot be a part of the private sector, with a few exceptions. They have until Aug. 25 to apply for the money.

While it covers a broad spectrum of public facilities, the public assistance grant cannot help with private property damage, such as damage to septic systems or wells.

There is a possibility that some of the grant money could go to removing standing dead trees in the forest, Galley added.

If the trees pose an imminent risk to power lines or roads, then El Paso County can consider that damage eligible for FEMA money. But that won't take care of the thousands of damaged trees on private property.

"About every tree that burned and is still standing might be a risk," Galley said.

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