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Number of destroyed residences becomes clearer

We all knew the number would grow — that the initial estimate of 600 residences destroyed in the Almeda fire was very preliminary and would turn out to be much larger.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Utah Task Force 1, an urban search and rescue team comprising members from Utah and Nevada, the picture is becoming clearer. The team reported Tuesday that 2,357 residential structures were destroyed in the fire, and an additional 57 were damaged.

That number represents structures, not housing units. A structure could be a single-family home or it could be an apartment building composed of multiple units.

To begin to put that number in perspective, Jackson County contained an estimated 97,266 housing units as of July 1, 2019, according to the Census Bureau. The bureau defines a housing unit as a house, an apartment, a mobile home, a group of rooms or a single room used as separate living quarters.

It’s not known yet how many separate housing units are included in the more than 2,400 structures destroyed or damaged, but it’s certain to be greater than the number of structures. Still, the vast majority of housing units in the county remain intact.

Unfortunately, the housing crunch that existed before the fire means there are very few of those units that are vacant and waiting to be occupied.

The county’s rental vacancy rate has hovered near 1% for several years. That means there are far more people displaced from their homes than there are units available for them to move into.

Local governments face the daunting task of figuring out what to do for the thousands of people forced to evacuate when the fire swept north from Ashland a week ago. Many of those people still have homes to return to, although they can’t return just yet because of safety hazards and the lack of water and power. That’s frustrating, but crews are working as fast as possible to make it safe for residents to return to neighborhoods in the fire zone.

Many others have no homes to return to, and they represent the greatest need at this point.

Local residents have responded with an outpouring of help and donations, as they always do. But even the overwhelming generosity of the Rogue Valley has limits. The rebuilding process will take years, and it hasn’t even started yet.