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Pace of cleanup frustrates many Almeda fire homeowners

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Crews expect to finish cleaning up charred debris at the Bear Lake Estates manufactured home park in Phoenix this week, but some property owners in the Almeda fire scar are pulling out of the government-funded cleanup project.

“More and more people are getting frustrated with the pace,” said John Vial, director of the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center.

The state is managing the cleanup effort and using contractors to carry out the work in the aftermath of the September 2020 Almeda fire that burned from Ashland to the outskirts of Medford, destroying major sections of Phoenix and Talent.

After federal Environmental Protection Agency crews picked out hazardous debris, contractors hired by the state began cleaning up general debris in January, including burned cars and the twisted metal frames of manufactured and mobile homes.

The work started with two crews but is now being carried out by eight crews, Vial said.

Jackson County has seen owners of 204 properties pull out of the general debris cleanup effort. Owners of more than 800 properties still want to take part, Vial said Wednesday.

“Frankly, if it’s getting cleaned up and they can do it themselves, more power to them. Our goal is to get this mess cleaned up, and if they feel comfortable doing it themselves, great, go clean it up,” he said. “Many of the people can’t. The majority of people will want the state to step in and help and that process is starting to speed up now.”

People who clean up property themselves or hire contractors to do the work must follow applicable laws about the disposal of different types of debris, city and county officials have cautioned.

The EPA crews that picked out hazardous debris did remove chunks they suspected contained asbestos. But small particles of asbestos may be scattered in the Almeda fire zone.

The state is having asbestos testing done. If areas are found to be free of contamination, that can speed up cleanup efforts.

However, the state doesn’t have enough asbestos testers on board. It’s working to get more, Vial said.

“But that right now is the biggest holdup to doing a quicker cleanup,” he said.

After crews finish cleaning up the 210-space Bear Lake Estates, they’ll move on to another large park — Mountain View Estates mobile home park in Talent, Vial said.

Before that park burned, it had 164 sites, according to the MHVillage website for the buying, selling and renting of mobile and manufactured homes.

Cleanup efforts will stay focused on mobile home parks for a while because they’re compact and represent a large amount of housing. Getting the parks cleaned will maximize the opportunity to rehouse people, Vial said.

“It’s about how can we do the most good the quickest.” he said.

The Almeda fire destroyed almost 2,500 residential structures and damaged more than 100 additional homes — leaving thousands of local residents homeless.

Five months after the fire, the number of homeless residents seeking shelter in hotels continues to grow.

Last week, 581 fire survivors were staying in 295 hotel rooms.

This week, the number grew to 619 fire survivors in 324 hotel rooms, Vial said.

The state is covering the cost of the hotel stays and providing food for the survivors. They are scattered in 20 hotels.

“That’s the fifth consecutive week that we’ve seen an increase in the number of people staying in hotels and seeking state assistance. So that is a little concerning that those numbers aren’t going down — but they’re actually going up,” Vial said.

Most of the increase is tied to people who can no longer stay with friends and family, he said.

More than 4,200 people lost their homes in the Almeda fire, although that number is likely a significant undercount. It only captures people who registered for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Many local residents don’t qualify for FEMA aid and didn’t register, including undocumented immigrants and workers and students from other countries with work or student visas.

More than 2,000 FEMA-registered fire survivors moved in with friends and family soon after the fire, and about 790 were in hotels. Others were either unsheltered or living in RVs and campers, cars, group shelters, tents, damaged homes, at work or in houses of worship, according to October 2020 data.

An estimated 255 people had found a new temporary rental, 60 found a new permanent rental, 42 were in a secondary residence like a vacation cabin and 14 had bought a new home by the end of October 2020.

There is no reliable data on where most fire survivors are living now because accurate numbers depend on survivors updating their information with FEMA — which many have not done, Vial said.

With the rental vacancy rate hovering at about 0% in much of the Rogue Valley, house prices continuing to rise and thousands of homes destroyed, finding a new place to rent or buy is a challenge.

The county, FEMA, the state, businesses, nonprofit groups and other partners have worked to house survivors in RVs and trailers in places like the Southern Oregon RV Park, Valley of the Rogue State Park, an unfinished subdivision in White City and parking lots.

Vial said the easiest places to find quick mobile home housing for people are now almost filled up. Other options will take longer.

The Phoenix-Talent School District is working with partners to create a housing site on property it owns along Colver Road, he said.

With help from a $250,000 grant from the People’s Bank of Commerce Foundation, the Talent Urban Renewal Agency announced in January it’s working on creating transitional housing on land it owns at the corner of Highway 99 and West Valley View Road.

The owner of Talent Mobile Estates has agreed to have fire survivors live on more than 70 sites, Vial said.

In the meantime, survivors of the Almeda or South Obenchain fires who need hotel housing can call the state’s wildfire housing hotline at 833-669-0554. The state is housing and feeding survivors whether or not they’re eligible for FEMA aid.

“If anyone finds themselves in need of housing as a result of the fires, please call that number and seek assistance,” Vial said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Almeda Fire cleanup efforts at Bear Lake Estates Wednesday in Phoenix. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Almeda Fire cleanup efforts at Bear Lake Estates Wednesday in Phoenix.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Almeda Fire cleanup efforts at Bear Lake Estates Wednesday in Phoenix. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Almeda Fire cleanup efforts at Bear Lake Estates Wednesday in Phoenix. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Almeda Fire cleanup efforts at Bear Lake Estates Wednesday in Phoenix.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Almeda fire cleanup efforts Wednesday at Bear Lake Estates in Phoenix. After state-contracted crews finish cleaning up the 210-space mobile home park, they’ll move on to Mountain View Estates in Talent. (Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune){ }
Almeda Fire cleanup efforts at Bear Lake Estates Wednesday in Phoenix. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Almeda Fire cleanup efforts at Bear Lake Estates Wednesday in Phoenix. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune