A Wildfire Survivor in Washington State Finds Help From FEMA to Assist in his Family’s Recovery

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Late afternoon on August 18, Cary Johnson was on the phone when his neighbor burst into his home. 

“You see that smoke?” the neighbor hollered. Johnson thought it looked like a house fire happening about a half mile away. 

“I hopped on a four-wheeler, went down the road, and I saw trees on fire,” said Johnson, 48, whose family has lived in Washington’s Spokane County community of Elk since 1963. He rushed to get a backhoe to dig a trench to keep the fire from spreading, but his neighbor stopped him, pointing out the area was already under a Level 3 evacuation order. He knew level 3 means there is an immediate, extreme danger in the area, your home is unsafe and you must evacuate immediately.  

Johnson ran into the house yelling, “Fire! Fire! Fire!” to warn his 12-year-old daughter. 

At the same time, the Gray Fire was blazing 50 miles away in Medical Lake. In both locations, hundreds of residents were being evacuated, thousands of acres of rural farmland and forests were being scorched and more than 360 structures destroyed. 

Johnson had recently started a new business to move mobile homes and anything his three semi-trucks could haul, including two mobile homes he hoped to sell. Now he saw the business going up in flames. He managed to drive one of the semis to a neighbor’s house where he hoped it would be safer. Back in the house he grabbed tools, documents, cash and contact lenses. The cat, Maggie, had run off and was nowhere to be found. 

Johnson’s buddy kept urging, “C’mon, C’mon.”

Johnson was calling everyone to check on his dad, his stepmom and his three uncles who live nearby.  On the road, a Sherriff’s officer kindly told him, “I don’t want you to go back there.” 

It was time to evacuate.

“When we left, the embers were already falling on me. I saw the trees burning and I heard the roar of the fire – that jet engine sound. And I saw my neighbors’ barn go up in flames,” Johnson said. 

In the end, the fire was devastating. Farmers and businesses would lose equipment, livestock and barns worth millions of dollars. The fires would cause an estimated loss of $166 million in assessed property value alone. Local, state and federal resources were deployed. Around Elk the fire destroyed 126 homes, burned more than 11,000 acres, and killed 49-year-old Alex Brown, a nearby neighbor of Johnson. In the immediate aftermath, the Country Church of the Open Bible in Elk opened its doors, providing food, clothes and supplies as well as a place for survivors to stay. The church later hosted a joint FEMA/State Disaster Recovery Center. 

All the family members survived, but Johnson’s father’s house was gone, and so were those of his three uncles. Johnson’s house was damaged but not destroyed. His other two semis and the house trailers, parked elsewhere, all were destroyed. 

Weeks before the disaster, Johnson’s daughter Dallas, 12, had been given a clean bill of health after a frightening round with cancer, and Johnson himself recently had rotator cuff surgery for an injured shoulder. He’d felt their suffering was ending. But now he only felt lost.

The extended family members retreated temporarily to Deer Park, about 12 miles southwest of Elk, which was untouched by the fire. Friends there offered help. Back in Elk, a friend of Johnson brought over a generator and a bunch of gas cans to Johnson’s house so work could commence. The roof, deck and other areas needed repairs. Johnson’s father used his life savings to buy a new backhoe to work on demolition and site clearing. 

Around the community, Elk was full of reminders: charred trees, rubble and skeletons of burnt-out cars. A puddle of now-solid aluminum was all that remained of one fellow’s 12-foot boat.

Johnson first heard about the FEMA Individual Assistance program from a family member who registered with FEMA and urged him to get his father and uncles to apply. All of them qualified for various levels of assistance.  

Johnson applied too, and in the process demonstrated how an interactive partnership between FEMA and an applicant can mitigate problems. 

Johnson applied by phone, using the FEMA Helpline: 800-621-3362. Soon he received a FEMA determination letter that he understood to mean he was denied assistance. He wanted to know why, so he met with FEMA staff members at the Disaster Recovery Center in Elk and learned he only needed to submit more documents. FEMA staff ran through his paperwork and concluded he could solve the problem online. He needed to upload bills from his cable TV provider to prove he lived in the house at the time of the fire and a legal document called a “Declaration of Ownership” to show he owned the house. 

Soon he received Home Repair Assistance and Renters Assistance to cover the time he was unable to live in the house. Later, he discovered more damage to the house and septic system and, with guidance from the FEMA staff, filed an appeal online to obtain additional support. To date, he has been approved to have his entire septic system replaced after it was destroyed by heat and debris from the fire. A request for further repairs is still pending.

Lance “Duke” Davis, the Federal Coordinating Officer for the Spokane Wildfires disaster, encourages FEMA applicants to work with FEMA staff to get the help they need. 

“All of these processes and forms can be extremely confusing for survivors who have already gone through so much,” said Davis. The agency recently implemented changes to the Individual Assistance Program to help improve the process and make it easier for survivors to get the help they need. 

Now almost ten months after the incident, more than $24 million of federal support, including more than $3 million in FEMA Individual Assistance and more than $21 million in U.S. Small Business Administration Disaster loans, has assisted Spokane County families and individuals affected by the wildfires. An additional nearly $40 million dollars are projected to help fund the repair of public roads, utilities and buildings. FEMA’s programs can help bring stability to a difficult situation. 

With repairs underway, Johnson says his home doesn’t yet feel like home. The trees that once lined the long L-shaped driveway are burned and his house is now visible to the public.

“I used to want a three-car garage and exotic cars,” said Johnson. Now he just wants his dad and his uncles to be okay. On the upside, Maggie the cat showed up unscathed.

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