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Residents Help Raise $13 MM after being denied FEMA funding in wake of Yarnell Hill Fire Destruction

Yarnell, AZ, USA

At a Glance

Yarnell, AZ did not qualify for federal recovery funding in the wake of a 2013 wildfire that caused widespread death and destruction. The efforts of a resident volunteer group with assistance from the state as part of a recovery framework funded the rebuilding of homes and drove recovery progress.

Problem Addressed

In June 2013, a lightning strike in the unincorporated community of Yarnell in Yavapai County, Arizona caused a dangerous wildfire. High speed winds and dry conditions due to a long-term drought allowed the fire to spread rapidly. It took emergency personnel 12 days to contain the fire, while the communities of Yarnell and nearby Peeples Valley faced mandatory evacuations. When the fire was finally contained, over 8,300 acres of land had burned and 19 local firefighters had lost their lives after being trapped by the fire. This was among the greatest losses of firefighter life in U.S. history from a single fire.

The initial Preliminary Damage Assessment recorded 116 residences as being impacted, with 93 of those being completely destroyed in a community of 700 people. It was estimated that 30 of the destroyed structures were uninsured residential homes, and 50 percent of the impacted community was classified as low-income. It was also discovered that the fire caused approximately $1 million in structural damage to the Yarnell Water Improvement Association, a private water co-op that served as the sole water supply for the entire Yarnell area. Despite the obvious destruction left in the fire's wake, damages stemming from the fire in Yarnell did not meet the threshold for FEMA funding. Furthermore, financial support for repairs to damaged privately-owned infrastructure, such as the water co-op, is excluded for funding from The Governor’s Emergency Fund.

Local leadership and the Yarnell community were facing a major, complex recovery effort following the wildfire. In the days immediately following the disaster, the community was not only physically impacted, but also emotionally impacted by the loss of fellow community members and the severe interruption to day-to-day life.

Local leadership took the lead in facilitating and directing the recovery effort until it became more clear how much financial or technical expertise the federal and state government partners would be able to offer to aid in Yarnell’s recovery. The extensive damage to infrastructure and local low-income residences, combined with the uneven insurance coverage and lack of direct funding from the state or federal government, meant that the Yarnell community needed to find innovative ways to obtain funding and drive recovery progress.

Yarnell, AZ used/is using local and state resources to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

Since financial assistance was not coming from FEMA or the Governor's Emergency Fund, local volunteers formed the nonprofit Yarnell Hill Recovery Group to apply for grant funding and address the community’s unmet needs. They were swiftly awarded $400,000 by the Arizona Community Foundation and Yavapai County Community Foundation to address the initial and most critical recovery issues. Additional funding and support from the Arizona Foundation for Charitable Support, the 100 Club of Arizona, and other non-governmental organizations contributed to the community’s long-term recovery. The recovery group has done everything from coordinating cleanup and donation efforts, to rebuilding homes.

“They had to take responsibility for their own recovery,” said Denny Foulk, Yavapai County emergency management coordinator. “No white knight was going to come. We told them they had to fix it themselves, but we would be there to help them.”

Yarnell also relied on media coverage to bring attention to the situation and generate donations. Financial donations stemming from news reports concerning the fire covered the cost of rebuilding the approximately 30 uninsured residential homes.

“They could write a book on how-to for other communities,” said Rowle Simmons, Yavapai County supervisor, whose district includes Yarnell.

The federal government, through the U.S. Small Business Administration, also stepped in, offering business loans of up to $2 million, home loans of up to $200,000, and personal property loans of up to $40,000, all low interest, for residents and business owners in Yarnell and other affected communities.

Even after funding had been identified to replace homes, and jumpstart economic development, the private water co-op that served as the sole water supply for the entire Yarnell area still needed to be repaired. The state of Arizona activated the Infrastructure Systems SRSF to coordinate the repair effort for the water co-op. The Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality took the lead and formed a working group that convened and coordinated relevant stakeholders to find a recovery solution that would incorporate

resiliency and leverage federal interagency support.

The state recovery effort to rebuild the damaged water co-op owed its speed to the Arizona Disaster Recovery Framework (AZDRF), published in 2012, that created a structure to coordinate key state and federal stakeholders for recovery at any scale. The framework puts people in place to assess impacts, prioritize needs, and engage additional partners in order to meet recovery goals.

Outcomes

  1. In total, approximately $13 million in public donations was distributed to victims and their families from non-governmental organizations to aid in their recovery.
  2. Financial resources were found to help offset the cost of repairing the Yarnell Water Improvement Association co-op, allowing it to supply water to Yarnell during the recovery period.
  3. Media coverage of the fire helped spread awareness and raise funding to rebuild the approximately 30 uninsured homes that burnt down at no cost to the owners.
  4. The U.S. Small Business Administration offered low interest business loans, home loans, and personal property loans to help residents and business owners in Yarnell and nearby communities.

Lessons Learned

  1. Having a state recovery framework in place pre-disaster greatly improved the state’s ability to coordinate recovery efforts in the absence of a federal disaster declaration
  2. Allocating financial donations and grants to home repairs and victim needs allowed the Yarnell community to use federal funding for infrastructure improvements.
  3. Recovery Frameworks should include tools for conducting recovery assessments, activating State Recovery Support Functions, and establishing clear communication post-disaster.

Who Should Consider?

Small towns and census-designated places impacted by wildfire or in wildfire-prone areas, and with limited recovery funds.

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