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Rim Fire Disaster Declaration Denial Appealed

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Sacramento, CA – Governor Jerry Brown has appealed the denial of a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration for the Rim Fire. Brown renewed the state’s call for federal assistance due to the impacts of the Rim Fire, appealing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) previous denial of a major disaster declaration.

In a letter sent to President Barack Obama last night, Brown states, “The Rim Fire caused significant impacts to the State and to the affected local jurisdictions of such severity and magnitude that recovery efforts remain beyond our capabilities.” He adds “In the aftermath of the fire, the State and its communities face infrastructure damage, significant negative economic impact, as well as complex and multifaceted environmental damages. The burned area created an enormous potential for catastrophic flooding and debris runoff from winter storms.”

Brown requested the Declaration on October 8, after he declared states of emergency in Tuolumne, Mariposa and San Francisco Counties. FEMA denied that request on November 4th. The Rim Fire’s current damage estimates are more than $54 million. Getting the declaration would release federal funds to aid communities in recovering from the Rim Fire.

Here is Brown’s letter to the President:

Dear Mr. President,

On November 4, 2013, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) denied the major federal disaster declaration I requested for the State of California. In the denial letter, FEMA asserted the severity and magnitude of the Rim Fire was not beyond State and local capabilities. I am appealing the denial of Public Assistance for the significantly impacted counties of Tuolumne and Mariposa, as well as for statewide Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) funding.

The Rim Fire ultimately burned 402 square miles over a period of 69 days, encompassing more than 257,314 acres; causing significant impacts to the State and to the affected local jurisdictions of such severity and magnitude that recovery efforts remain beyond our capabilities. This critical need for federal help prompted my requests for assistance through various programs, including a request for a major disaster declaration.

In the aftermath of the fire, the State and its communities face infrastructure damage, significant negative economic impact, as well as complex and multifaceted environmental damages. The burned area created an enormous potential for catastrophic flooding and debris runoff from winter storms. The following factors should be considered as a component of the request for reconsideration of Public Assistance program and statewide HMGP funding.

Incident Period

On August 23, 2013, FEMA granted a Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAG) for the Rim Fire. Based on regulations, the incident period for the FMAG was identified as August 20, 2013, through September 8, 2013. However, this FMAG period represents only 29 percent of the time the fire actually burned. Fire activity continued for an additional 46 days beyond the FMAG incident period, resulting in additional damage and requiring the commitment of state and local resources. According to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the Rim Fire began August 17, 2013, and was not 100 percent contained until October 24, 2013. Therefore, I am requesting the incident period of the major disaster declaration be August 17, 2013, through October 24, 2013.

Increase in Estimated Cost of Assistance

Pursuant to the regulations, a per capita figure measures the impact of a disaster within a state. California’s impact indicator is $51,037,920 for the Rim Fire event. The original joint FEMA-State preliminary damage assessment (PDA), completed on October 2, 2013; resulted in an estimated total cost to the State of $70 million. These costs included FMAG eligible costs as well as non-FMAG Public Assistance eligible costs. Since the Rim Fire continued to burn for 46 additional days, a subsequent joint FEMA-State PDA was conducted on November 13, 2013. FEMA Region IX has concurred with the costs provided in Attachment A, that reflect the FMAG total of over $27 million and the non-FMAG Public Assistance program costs of over $54 million, which surpasses California’s impact indicator.

Impact to California

California Disaster Assistance Act (CDAA)
In order to help mitigate the effects of the devastating fire, I proclaimed a State of Emergency for the County of Tuolumne, the City and County of San Francisco, and Mariposa County on August 22, 2013, August 23, 2013, and August 29, 2013, respectively. Subsequently I issued an Executive Order on October 23, 2013, which provides financial assistance through CDAA to local agencies and non-profit organizations that provide services, and directs additional assistance to support local recovery efforts. Without a major disaster declaration, CDAA will cost-share with the FMAG at a rate of 18.75 percent and provide 75 percent of the remaining eligible costs (except to state agencies) of the event. The local governments will be responsible for 6.25 percent cost-share with the FMAG and a 25 percent cost-share with CDAA. These totals equate to $61,185,428 of the $82,035,496, which is the combined total of the FMAG and non-FMAG estimates. In addition, California will be cost-sharing with the estimated $1.7 million in Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Emergency Relief (ER) program damages.

Since CDAA is available for services rather than facilities of private non-profit organizations, the completely devastated Camp Tawonga will not be eligible to receive an estimated $264,000 in public assistance for its damages. It is significant to note Camp Tawonga, a 160 acre residential Jewish summer camp located on the middle fork of the Tuolumne River, is ineligible for reimbursement under the FMAG declaration. Therefore, without a major disaster declaration, the entire cost of the Camp Tawonga’s fire-related damages will be borne solely by the private non-profit.

Environmental Impact

Consistent with the President’s Council on Environmental Quality’s recently approved Principles and Requirements for Investments in Water Resources, which recognized ecosystem service values in project benefit cost analyses, San Francisco recently prepared a draft report on the ecosystems impact of the Rim Fire. This ecosystem valuation analysis is consistent with FEMA- prescribed cost-benefit policy already employed by FEMA for its hazard mitigation assistance programs.

The preliminary study (Preliminary Assessment: The Economic Impact of the 2013 Rim Fire on Natural Lands) estimated ecosystem losses and damages at a minimum of $115 million. This loss could ultimately be much higher as values and assumptions are reviewed and new information becomes available. The largest economic losses to the environment are associated with burnt coniferous forest, primarily due to the vast extent and severity of the burn. High loss values related to this fire include habitat and biodiversity loss, recreation, water filtration, aesthetic values, carbon sequestration and storage, and recreational value.

These losses, due to the damage to the ecosystem, must be considered when determining the impact on California.
There are 720 miles of roads and 118 miles of trails in the burn area. Roads and trails throughout the burned watersheds are likely to be impacted by runoff, sediment, and debris derived from burn areas. U.S. and State highways, county roads, and forest roads exist in these watersheds. Increased runoff and sediment from the burned areas can negatively affect the road prism, damaging the roads, eroding land downslope and routing flow and sediment directly to stream channels. Culverts associated with these roads are at risk of plugging from debris carried down channels from burned watersheds. Some culverts are undersized for the expected increases in peak flows and are at risk of failure from overtopping. Culvert failures may increase the magnitude of flood, sediment and erosion hazards in downstream communities and private lands and increase scouring of stream channels on USFS lands.

Based on historic precipitation patterns, it can be expected that frontal storms have a high probability of occurring. The risk of flooding and erosional events will increase as a result of the fire creating hazardous conditions within and downstream of the burn area. These areas are at risk due to flooding and sedimentation affecting water quality, roads, hydroelectric powerhouses, and private camps. Impaired soil productivity and hydrologic function affect:
Human life and safety on or in close proximity to burned lands through increased flood threats;
Property and infrastructure on or in close proximity to burned lands through increased flooding, erosion, and debris threats; and Critical and occupied habitat for state and federally listed threatened or endangered terrestrial and aquatic animal species within and in close proximity to burned lands through increased flooding and water quality impacts and through delayed vegetative recovery affects.

The Rim Fire negatively affected state and federally listed endangered and threatened species, which may have a profound impact on California for years to come. The fire destroyed significant habitat for a number of California’s rarest animals, and biologists are studying the effect of the fire on wildlife. Additionally, locals have reported an increase in starving bobcats, mountain lions, and bears near campsites, which also puts the lives of the members of the community at risk.

Economic Impact

In 2012, nearly 4 million people entered Yosemite National Park to explore the park’s natural resources, hiking trails and roadways. Because of the Rim Fire and subsequent government shutdown, the number of visitors has been greatly diminished for 2013, causing short- and long-term economic impacts to the Region. The tourist economy of Yosemite National Park not only provides critical life support for Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties, but also for Merced and Madera Counties. The economy supporting these counties has been hit hard with the impact of the fire, and at the same time potential tourist dollars were left unrealized when the federal government shutdown Yosemite.

Local businesses were severely impacted during the height of the tourist season due to many stores, campgrounds, restaurants, and hotels having to close their doors during the long fire fight and smoke problems. Business owners were also forced to cut staffing, which resulted in residents needing to seek unemployment assistance in order to meet the needs of their families and their homes. For Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties, tourism-dependent businesses like motels, restaurants, and gas stations have all suffered, impacting local and state tax revenue. Tuolumne County estimated it will be out at least $350,000 in hotel and sales taxes and that $3.25 million was lost in tourist spending during the fire and Yosemite closure. Additionally, Mariposa County, estimated lodging revenue losses at more than $3.5 million. The Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau estimates that local business will ultimately lose as much as $15 million in lost tourism and Mariposa County estimates more than $5 million in lost tourism dollars. Further, the subsequent shut down of the federal government only exacerbated the economic problems brought on by the Rim Fire. Businesses simply could not recover before Yosemite National Park and other federal entities were closed. While some federal employees will be reimbursed for lost wages during the federal shutdown, this will not be the case for employees in the tourist-related private sector in Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties.
Other California communities were distressed to lesser degrees; however, it’s worth mentioning that thick smoke covered areas north of the fire all the way through the Tahoe basin, into northern Nevada, and could also be seen from points as far away as Idaho. In sum, there are not many business owners in the Sierra Nevada who were not impacted by this devastating event.

Tribal Impact

The Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, its members, residents, employees and customers, suffered significantly as a result of the Rim Fire. While direct damages to tribal land did not occur, the fire threatened tribal borders and surrounding communities, causing a significant impact to the Tribe both spiritually and economically. Smoke from the fire created a health hazard that will have unknown long term effects on the community. Road closures forced the casino, hotel, gas station, health clinic and all tribal governmental entities to evacuate and eventually close, impacting revenue that is vital to the community’s self-sufficiency. Cultural resources were also affected.

Federal and State Resources

In addition to the direct impacts to public infrastructure, both the agricultural as well as business communities were adversely affected as a result of the Rim Fire, which in turn also impacted employment and the local/regional economy. Ranchers and farmers not only lost livestock as a result of the fire, but incurred costs to feed their livestock as well as to physically move the herds to other areas for grazing.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a disaster designation for Tuolumne and Mariposa, the assistance made available by USDA’s Farm Service Agency did not cover the livestock compensation and feeding expenses. At my request, the U.S. Small Business Administration issued a declaration for economic injury for the primary counties of Mariposa and Tuolumne, as well as six contiguous counties on September 26, 2013. Many of the businesses were so severely impacted by the loss of working capital that they did not have the capability to pay back a loan.
To assist those who lost their jobs as a result of the economic impacts to businesses, I also directed my Employment Development Department (EDD) to waive the one-week waiting period for those who filed unemployment claims. Although this was helpful, unemployment compensation does not equate to one’s full salary.

I also directed my Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to request participation in FHWA’s ER Program, which provides federal relief for emergency and permanent repairs to federal aid highways. The estimated damages, as a result of the Rim Fire, eligible under this program are $1.7 million, which the CDAA program will cost-share with as appropriate.
To alleviate the fires conditions, I deployed the necessary state resources including but not limited to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), California National Guard, California Highway Patrol, Caltrans, California Conservation Corps, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Environmental Protection Agency, California EDD, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and my Office of Emergency Services. These state agencies are not eligible to receive funding under CDAA; however, the financial impact to California is substantial as validated in the joint PDAs.

Additional Impacts on California

Although the following factors are not a direct result of the Rim Fire, they impact California:
CAL FIRE reports that fire response costs for calendar year 2013 exceed $177 million. During the period of August 17, 2013, and October 24, 2013, the State of California and its mutual aid system responded to 56 other significant wild fires throughout the State. Two of these 56 events were significant to the extent that I proclaimed two additional State of Emergencies. California has suffered several weather events this year resulting in multiple local proclamations statewide, including a state declaration for Inyo County’s July storms, which is more than a $5 million impact on California’s general fund. The federal and state lands denuded by the Rim Fire present a unique risk to the built environment. At the urban interface where wild land and development meet, the hazard from post-fire flooding, erosion, sedimentation and mud flows can directly impact communities. HMGP funds can be used to employ soil stabilization and sediment control measures to reduce the risk posed by these hazards. HMGP funds can also be used for defensible space, ignition resistant material and fuel reduction activities that can reduce future fire risk. Without a major disaster declaration, HMGP funds will not be available.

In conclusion, California has effectively demonstrated it has met the eligibility criteria for a major disaster declaration. I have provided supporting information, validating the original assertion that the damages sustained and the monetary cost to the State, as well as the economic impact on local governments, exceeds our combined capabilities.

I respectfully seek your favorable consideration of this appeal and request that you declare a major disaster for California, specifically the counties of Tuolumne and Mariposa, as a result of the Rim Fire event.

Edmund G. Brown Jr.