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DIY fire cleanup is tempting, but be careful

It’s not surprising that property owners displaced by the Almeda fire are frustrated with the pace of cleaning up home sites so construction can begin. It’s understandable that some have decided to do the work themselves, or hire their own contractors to do it, in hopes of hastening the day they can move in to a rebuilt home. But caution is advised.

It has now been five months since the fire, and the Environmental Protection Agency has finished removing hazardous waste from the burn area. The rest of the debris removal, referred to as “ash and trash,” started last month, and is focusing on manufactured home parks, because they contained large numbers of dwellings in a relatively small area.

It makes sense to concentrate the first cleanup efforts in places where large numbers of people can be rehoused quickly. That doesn’t make it any easier for those who have to wait longer. John Vial, director of the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center, says 204 people have opted out of the state-managed cleanup, leaving more than 800 property owners who still want to participate.

It’s important for those opting out to understand, first, that there still may be asbestos in the debris, and testing needs to happen to determine where it is. Those who choose to pursue the cleanup themselves or the contractors they hire to do the work also must comply with applicable rules and regulations for disposing of the debris.

Vial said anyone who wants to get their property cleaned up faster on their own is welcome to do so, but he notes that most people aren’t able to and will need the state’s help.

The biggest obstacle to speed right now is a lack of asbestos testers. The state should do everything in its power to add more testing as quickly as possible. In the meantime, displaced residents will have to be patient with the slow pace of cleanup.

The lengthy process is reflected in the fact that more people, not fewer, are now being housed in hotels. The number sheltered and fed at state expense has increased for each of the past five weeks because some people are no longer able to stay with friends or family who initially took them in after the fire.

The state is covering the cost of sheltering and feeding fire survivors even if they are not eligible for FEMA assistance. Anyone displaced by the fire who still needs that help should not hesitate to apply.

All levels of government should be working diligently to remove obstacles to the rebuilding process. Housing in Southern Oregon was in short supply before the fires, and the loss of thousands of units only made that crisis worse.