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Phoenix faces long path to recovery from Almeda fire

The Phoenix City Council declared a local state of emergency through the beginning of January as it copes with the immediate aftermath of the Almeda fire and begins thinking ahead about years of rebuilding.

Councilors, two of whom lost their homes in the fire, met via videoconference Monday night to declare the state of emergency, which will give the city of Phoenix more flexibility to respond to the fire that decimated businesses and whole neighborhoods.

Jackson County’s planning and building department is helping with the detailed, time-intensive task of assessing damage throughout Phoenix so the city has the best shot of getting aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Phoenix Associate Planner Joe Slaughter.

Evacuated residents whose homes are in the remaining Level 3 “Go” evacuation zones are clamoring for news about whether their homes still stand. People have not been allowed to return to “Go” zones due to ongoing hazards.

Slaughter said the city has considered an offer from the Rogue Valley Council of Governments to put together a tentative map of lost homes based on aerial footage. The city is hesitant because some people may get incorrect news that their homes either survived or were destroyed.

Rebuilding homes lost to the fire will take several years, he predicted.

Phoenix remains under an advisory to boil drinking water. The system lost pressure due to unprecedented demand during the firefight, which may have allowed harmful bacteria to enter the system

The city has taken water samples and is hoping to get results Tuesday, said Phoenix Public Works Superintendent Matias Mendez.

He is on the job working to restore services for residents despite losing his home in the fast-moving, wind-driven fire that started Sept. 8.

Mayor Chris Luz warned that the city and Phoenix-Talent School District are facing a drop-off in revenue that could hurt their ability to provide services. Both will lose property taxes, the city will lose revenue from services like water, and the school district will lose state funding if it sees a permanent drop in students.

Brent Barry, superintendent of the Phoenix-Talent School District, praised firefighters who were able to save all the schools in the district, including Phoenix High School.

But the fire was so widespread, 25 staff members lost homes, he said.

The district estimates about 50% of its families have lost their homes as well.

Like Phoenix, the town of Talent was also heavily damaged by the fire.

Some students have relocated to the Jackson County Expo for shelter or are staying with friends and family in the Rogue Valley, but others have had to leave the valley and even the state to find a place to stay, Barry said.

“We want to have our students and families come back to our community as soon as possible,” he said.

The district had planned for online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but resuming online school could be weeks away, Barry said.

“We’re just in disaster relief and support mode,” he said.

Barry said school properties may serve as potential shelters.

People can help students and their families by donating money to the Phoenix Talent Fire Relief Fund, P.O. Box 937, Medford, OR 97501. Funds can also be dropped off at Orchard Hill Elementary, 1011 La Loma Drive in Medford. Make checks payable to Jackson County School District No. 4.

Phoenix City Manager Eric Swanson said the city is dealing with a wide range of problems from the fire — including an enormous amount of rotten food from the city losing electricity. Dumpsters have been set up in the city for people to throw away the contents of their refrigerators and freezers.

Pacific Power is working to restore electricity and some Phoenix neighborhoods regained power Monday.

About 3,782 customers were without power in the areas in and around the Almeda fire Monday night, and 802 customers were without power in areas near the South Obenchain fire in northern Jackson County, according to Pacific Power data Monday night.

To view a map of outages in Pacific Power’s coverage area, visit pacificpower.net/outages-safety.html.

For updated information on Pacific Power plans to restore electricity in specific areas, see pacificpower.net/outages-safety/outage-resource-center.html.

Phoenix City Councilor Stuart Warren said he’s been volunteering at Home Depot by the Phoenix I-5 interchange. The site has turned into a drop-off and pick-up spot for food, water, home goods, gift cards for students and their families and other helpful items.

“It’s heartening to see the amount of folks wanting to help,” Warren said.

The Jackson County Expo, located at 1 Peninger Road off I-5 Exit 33 in Central Point, is the official shelter spot for the county, and also a place where people can get much-needed supplies, help dealing with insurance, computer access and many other services.

Jackson County Fire District No. 5 Chief Charles Hanley said he wants to see a local disaster assistance center set up in Phoenix as soon as possible where people can get one-stop help for everything from insurance help to FEMA aid.

“That really has to be one of the most important things that we do,” he said.

Phoenix City Councilor Andrew Barrow and Councilor Angie Vermillion both lost their homes in the blaze.

Barrow said his whole block was leveled.

Like others who’ve lost their homes, Barrow said he’s exhausted — but grateful for the way the community is rallying to help those impacted by the fire.

“Being that we’re the phoenix, we’re going to rise from the ashes and come back better on the other end,” Barrow said of the city.

Vermillion said her son is a firefighter currently working 12-hour shifts on the South Obenchain fire in northern Jackson County.

She said many firefighters who fought the Almeda fire are now battling the South Obenchain fire.

Oregon was hit by windstorms that fanned wildfires of unprecedented destruction starting last week.

The Phoenix City Council will hold a virtual town hall meeting via the videoconference service Zoom to hear from the public about impacts from the fire.

The meeting is from 3-5 p.m. Wednesday.

Visit phoenixoregon.gov for information on how to join the meeting online.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

The Reyes family looks at the destruction of their home at Coleman Creek Estates mobile home park in Phoenix. Paula Bronstein/Associated Press