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Fire cleanup could cost $170 million

Costs to clean up and haul away hazardous debris from the Almeda fire could approach $170 million, or roughly $70,000 for each house that burned down.

“I’ll just be honest, the cost of this debris cleanup is staggering,” said John Vial, Jackson County Emergency Operations Center Director. “It kind of shocked most of us how expensive this is.”

The reason it’s so expensive is because of the hazardous materials in the rubble of the burned-out structures, and all that debris can’t be dumped in the local landfill. The estimated cost to cleanup lots is a very rough estimate at this point and officials hope the actual costs will be less.

Jackson County is taking the lead with local cities on figuring out the best approach to the cleanup effort, hoping to secure Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars to cover much of the cost as well as potentially from insurance companies.

While Talent and Phoenix were the hardest hit by the fires, a large number of the mobile home parks and other properties that were burned are located outside the boundaries of those cities.

While officials urge property owners affected by the fire to sit tight while the cleanup is figured out, many property owners have started removing debris, even as health officials urge them to take precautions such as wearing masks, boots and other gear.

The fire ripped through one of the biggest swaths of affordable housing in the valley, and many of these displaced residents are itching to rebuild or have their mobile homes replaced.

Vial said the county wants to undertake a unified approach to the cleanup, rather than some lots cleaned up while others nearby remain a blight zone.

Phoenix City Manager Eric Swanson said the cleanup costs are beyond the ability of local cities to handle by themselves.

“We’re getting a lot of people asking the question, ‘Why does it cost so much?’”

The city has counted about 800 structures that have been damaged or destroyed by the fire, and some residents have insurance while others don’t.

Some residents have taken it upon themselves to start the cleanup, only to have their loads rejected when they attempt to dump them in the landfill, Swanson said.

The cleanup effort, Swanson explained, could require digging several inches down into the soil to remove toxic substances.

County officials have been in contact with state and federal officials to line up the money to pay for the cleanup effort and to look at ways to provide housing for displaced individuals.

Swanson said the county is looking at as many as 15 large parcels in the region that could provide temporary housing, though it hasn’t settled on the type of housing yet.

“There’s a lot of discussion about FEMA trailers,” he said.

Officials have been in discussions with Gov. Kate Brown’s office about cost-sharing ideas, basically trying to determine who pays for the cleanup.

Swanson said the cities that have been affected also are looking at replacing public buildings and infrastructure damaged by the fire. In the case of Phoenix, early estimates indicate $1 million in damage to water meters, a playground and an old house owned by the city.

Swanson said Phoenix’s $3.4 million general fund budget is expected to see an $800,000 loss in revenue because of reduced revenues, so the city will have a difficult time paying for rebuilding the city infrastructure.

Another issue that has to be resolved is rebuilding in floodplains.

Many of the mobile home parks would be affected by floodplain rules, and the mobile homes provided an affordable place for many locals to live.

“We’ll be in discussion about how to relax those rules,” Swanson said.

He said the city asks residents to be patient as officials come up with a plan to deal with this crisis.

“We’re all better off if we wait,” he said.

Sandra Spelliscy, Talent city manager, said her city would prefer local residents not attempt the cleanup of their properties.

“I know people are frustrated and it sounds overwhelming, and it is,” Spelliscy said. “The city of Talent, we would like to do a coordinated cleanup, so it is basically cleaned up by the federal government.”

Homeowners will also work with their insurance companies, which will in turn coordinate with other agencies in the cleanup effort.

“Our preference would be that nobody should go on these sites,” she said. “We put out the word early on that the government should pick up the tab instead of individual property owners.”

A potential sticking point to getting FEMA support is that Oregon was placed in a “Category B” disaster level instead of “Category A,” which provides for much greater relief efforts.

Spelliscy said the city’s estimate of the number of buildings burned down is about 800, or roughly the same as Phoenix. However, many of these buildings, such as apartments, had multiple units, so the estimate of residences lost is probably double that number, she said.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said the state has been in talks with federal officials to try to get the Category A disaster rating from FEMA.

“That opens the door for FEMA providing a greater share of the costs,” she said.

Marsh said the expectation is that manufactured and older homes as well as car repair and other businesses have toxins on site that have to be handled carefully.

While she acknowledged that many property owners are growing impatient, she urges everyone to take a breath before trying to do the work themselves.

“Everybody is advocating for a comprehensive approach to this,” she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.

Bethel Global Response, a disaster response ministry out of Bethel Church in Redding, California, work to recover items from a home in Phoenix on Friday. (Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune)