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SBA declares Yarnell fire disaster, prepares to offer low-interest loans

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WASHINGTON – The Small Business Administration announced Friday it will offer disaster assistance in the form of low-interest loans to help counter the damage of the Yarnell Hill fire that killed 19 firefighters in June.

State officials had asked for assistance from the SBA after their request for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was turned down in early August. The SBA said Friday it would provide business loans of up to $2 million, home loans of up to $200,000 and loans to replace personal property up to $40,000 in Yavapai and neighboring counties.

“The U.S. Small Business Administration is strongly committed to providing Arizona with the most effective and customer-focused response possible,” Jeanne Hulit, acting SBA administrator, said in a written statement Friday. “We will be there to provide access to federal disaster loans to help finance recovery for residents and businesses affected by the disaster.”

Frances Lechner, a spokeswoman for the Yarnell Hill Recovery Group, said the loans should help.

“It’s mentally, emotionally and financially a shot in the arm,” she said.

The loans will not have as much of an impact as the FEMA money would have, Lechner said. But Yarnell’s “shoestring economy” was already struggling before the fire, and low-interest loans could make a difference, she said.

“If ever there were people in need of low interest loans, it’s Yarnell,” Lechner said.

SBA spokesman Gary Colton agreed that if residents are approved for an SBA loan, “it’s another tool they can use in their recovery.”

The agency will review all applications by sending a representative to review claims, but Colton said he doesn’t doubt that the damage will usually be severe enough to qualify.

“If it’s from the fire, it’s probably significant damage,” he said.

The deadline to apply for a loan for physical property damage is Nov. 12 and the deadline to apply for a business loan to help offset economic damage is June 13, 2014. The loans are available to residents of Yavapai, Coconino, Gila, La Paz, Maricopa and Mohave counties.

The SBA also set up a local loan center at the Yarnell Community Presbyterian Church that will be open through Oct. 10, Colton said.

Gov. Jan Brewer’s office did not return a request for comment Friday on the SBA announcement, but she expressed disappointment last month when Arizona’s FEMA request was turned down.

“I am deeply troubled by the Obama administration’s decision to deny much-needed recovery assistance in the wake of Arizona’s deadliest wildfire,” Brewer said Aug. 9 in a written statement. “This designation would have provided critical aid to citizens most impacted by the fire.”

Brewer said then that Yarnell residents should not have to worry about recovering financially after having to deal with the June 30 deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain hotshot crew in the fire.

Those deaths probably did not influence the SBA’s decision much, Colton said. The administration’s disaster relief efforts are meant to address property damage, and the SBA decided the damage in Yarnell was extensive enough to need federal assistance, he said.

“Loss of life is always a tragedy, but that probably isn’t a major consideration,” Colton said of the decision-making process. “I can’t speak for FEMA, but we look at property at the SBA.”