Under the rubble
Under each pile of rubble, there was once a home.
At Pacific Village mobile home park in Phoenix, remnants of life remain at space No. 80 — a harp, stacks of plates, bed springs and a metal lantern night light with star cutouts.
The story of each park is different, said Chaplain Jeffrey Long, as he stopped by to offer services to residents sorting through their own square-footage of rubble Monday. Last week, he met a couple who lost their two cats to the fire and found their bones huddled together where their home once stood.
Long intended to contact No. 80’s neighbor, to bring some tools and a piano someone donated.
Around the corner, excavator claws lift piles of debris and burned trees — a source of frustration for No. 80 resident Ian Webb.
For Webb, it’s all happening too fast, as he returns each day to search for one of his cats, which he lost the day of the fire and later saw roaming the area from a game camera next to a cat trap with food.
The pile of carnage that was once his home has shifted several times over the three weeks since the Almeda fire. Heaps of twisted metal and burned trees line his property — some piles recently created by cleanup efforts prohibit him from collecting salvageable items.
“I have a little metal spinning wheel that was still in great shape,” Webb said. “And I was leaving it there because this is still my home, it is my right to come here and see my little spinning thing, and have a little bit of comfort in that.”
One day he returned and found a tree dropped on it, the metal bent and broken into pieces. The cat carrier and a bowl he set out for his cat were smashed into a metal heap. He is certain looters have also been around, fiddling with the charred pieces of his life.
A Facebook message from CPM Real Estate Services to Webb’s relative said the Pacific Village property owner contracted with a third-party vendor and began removing trees before the property manager had received notice. Resident concerns are being forwarded.
Somehow, a porcelain doll from the top of a living room shelf survived nearly untouched, leaving Webb wondering what other family gems might be precariously tucked in the wreckage. Value is a highly individual question, he said.
The evening of Sept. 8, Webb jumped fences and roadblocks to get back to his house and retrieve his cats. In the moment of deciding what to take or leave, he weighed financial and sentimental value.
He heard a meow from under the porch, crawled under the deck and grabbed one cat, wrapped him in a blanket, tossed the impromptu pack over his shoulder, climbed back over the fence and secured the cat in the car before searching for the other.
“I stepped back on the deck and the fire that was on my neighbor’s house started pouring down the side of the lattice and I stepped back by the pond and I just knew — I knew at that point it was done.”
Webb eventually settled in the Home Depot parking lot to address the blood dripping down his arm from sharp fence edges and control his breathing.
After living through that experience, the continued destruction that precedes rebuilding is difficult to face. His child’s singed bicycle will not be ridden again, but still reminds the family of what they lost. Crews operating excavators didn’t cause the devastation but perhaps do not fully recognize the value of what is left in the rubble, Webb speculated.
Webb’s property is one of the approximately 70% of homes in the park without insurance — an estimate provided by Foreman Russel Schort from the site Monday. Rebuilding stages are directed by the property owner, based in Utah. The owner pays out-of-pocket expenses for the sites without insurance, adding some pressure for speed.
Crews are currently focused on removing trees before mobile home frames come out. From there, the team will clear everything out, including asphalt and concrete, and rebuild the park from the ground up. Communication with residents is the responsibility of the property manager.
The company with formal control over the project gave the contractor authority to lock up the park at the end of last week and proceed with cleanup, Schort said, but the team decided to leave it open for one more week for residents.
“We’re not trying to be heartless or take anybody for granted,” Schort said at the job site Monday. “We got hired to do a job.”
A barrel sifter will sort through debris when the frames are pulled and sift out anything smaller than a quarter, which will be left out for residents to collect when appropriate.
Most park residents have not objected to the speed of the cleanup work, he said, but looting has been a major issue. The contract crew keeps an eye out for people who don’t belong.
Schort aims to complete the project in six months to a year, so people who had insurance and already received a reimbursement check can order their new home and place it in the park as soon as it comes off the line.
Webb’s frustration with breakdowns in communication and an unclear rebuilding process is something Jackson County Emergency Operations Center Director John Vial hopes to remedy in the coming weeks.
“The cleanup of this area is a huge exercise,” Vial said. “What is being done now is there are steps being made to, hopefully, have this cleanup be done at a programmatic, centralized operation.”
The intention, directed by a statewide cleanup task force, is to hire contractors and clean up site by site holistically, rather than individual property owners engaging in disparate rebuilding techniques.
Vial estimated Environmental Protection Agency agents will be on the ground in three weeks for phase one cleanup across the Almeda fire scar, to remove hazardous materials such as paint, propane and fertilizer. Phase two will include more large-scale tree removal and bulldozing.
One central challenge with cleanup is any house built before 2004 is assumed to have asbestos, which requires a special contracting license to handle, Vial said. Landfills may or may not accept the material once cleared.
Schort said he completed a lead and asbestos check at Pacific Village before they started work.
Cities require permits for independent cleanup work, which is allowed so long as residents follow EPA and Department of Environmental Quality guidelines for handling ash, Vial said. Jackson County Emergency Management recommends giving the statewide effort some time to unfold rather than tackling questions about insurance coverage and asbestos disposal alone.
Still, individual property owners are responsible for gathering valuables and personal items from sites, as cleanup agents will not be searching for such objects.
While Vial recommended residents continue to ask questions and remain involved in rebuilding, he cautioned that the process will not unfold as quickly or seamlessly as residents may want because of the monumental scale of the disaster.