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State, FEMA will cover costs of hazardous debris cleanup

Local officials are urging residents not to try to clean up burned property themselves — especially since the state of Oregon and Federal Emergency Management Agency have agreed to cover the costs of removing hazardous debris.

The first step in clearing properties is to clean up asbestos, propane tanks, toxic chemicals and other hazardous materials.

“This will be provided at no cost to property owners, as federal and state governments are covering the costs of household hazardous waste removal,” said Liane O’Neill, public information officer for the Wildfire Joint Information Center.

It’s not yet clear who will cover the cost of cleaning up the remaining non-hazardous debris, but local officials are working to get outside aid to help cover those expenses, said Jackson County Emergency Operations Center Director John Vial.

An assessment is going on to estimate the volume of material that could go to the local Dry Creek Landfill, and whether the landfill can handle those loads, he said.

Some of the nonhazardous debris, such as the metal from manufactured home bases, is recyclable. Local recycling businesses are eager to take that material, Vial said.

Federal Environmental Protection Agency strike teams could start tackling the hazardous debris in mid-October, he said.

They will pile the material in staging areas near burned sites, then haul it away to facilities that can accept the hazardous debris, Vial said.

“This is the first step in the cleanup process, and our goal is to make this process as easy for property owners as possible and to ensure that it is completed in a comprehensive, safe and organized fashion,” he said.

Government officials will start reaching out to property owners to get permission to access their property, Vial said.

Property owners need to sign access agreements by Oct. 16, O’Neill said.

Jackson County and the cities of Talent and Phoenix are recommending that residents not try to clean their properties themselves.

Hazardous material is not only dangerous, but complying with state and federal hazardous waste laws is complex. Any contractors who do the work have to have special licenses and certifications, local officials said.

Insurance policies may not cover a cleanup’s full cost if it’s not done correctly, they said.

Estimates on the cost of cleaning up a single site range widely from $20,000 to more than $100,000.

The Almeda fire destroyed 2,490 residential structures and damaged 120, primarily in Phoenix and Talent, according to the latest numbers on Wednesday.

The fire destroyed 164 business properties and damaged 24, while also destroying four government buildings and damaging one.

The South Obenchain fire in northern Jackson County destroyed 33 single structures and another 56 minor structures, according to fire managers.

Jackson County Commissioners said teaming up with the state and federal governments on cleanup efforts makes sense given the scale of the destruction.

“This will be vital for the underinsured and uninsured,” said Commissioner Rick Dyer.

Property owners won’t be forced to have the EPA strike teams clean up their property.

“Nothing stops a private property owner from acting independently,” said County Administrator Danny Jordan.

Property owners may be able to get reimbursement if they document their spending carefully, but it’s not guaranteed. They also face a liability risk if the hazardous waste removal isn’t done correctly, Jordan warned.

Having a coordinated effort for phase one and two of the cleanup process will help ensure that whole communities get cleaned up, rather than having hazardous sites sprinkled around, creating long-term problems, Jordan said.

He said getting outside help from the state and federal governments is critical. The county government and the cities of Phoenix and Talent don’t have enough money, staff or expertise to manage a massive cleanup effort.

“This is a really good thing for our county and our citizens and it gets the ball rolling,” Jordan said.

People who have suffered losses from local fires should register with FEMA at disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362.

More than 2,700 people in Jackson County have already registered and received over $10 million in aid. FEMA generally helps cover expenses not paid for by insurance, said FEMA Division Supervisor Toby Rice.

FEMA doesn’t provide aid for undocumented immigrants, unless they have a qualifying person in their household such as a citizen (including minor children), non-citizen national or qualified alien.

The local Latino population, including some undocumented immigrants, was particularly hard hit by the destruction of housing.

Rice said FEMA’s policy not to give aid to undocumented immigrants won’t interfere with the hazardous waste cleanup.

The state of Oregon is technically the applicant for the cleanup funding, not individuals, Rice said.

Regardless of citizenship status, local nonprofits and other agencies are helping all residents impacted by the fires.

The Multi-Agency Resource Center, set up at Central High School, 815 S. Oakdale Ave., in Medford, is offering a broad array of help from different organizations. The center is open every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Smaller Multi-Agency Resource Centers for FEMA claims processing are at Talent Elementary School, 307 Wagner Creek Road, and the Phoenix Civic Center, 220 N. Main St. Interpreters are available at the centers.

Rice said more FEMA representatives will be on hand starting Thursday to process claims.

They can also help people who received an aid denial from FEMA. Applications are sometimes denied for issues that are easy to fix, such as an incorrect Social Security number or address. FEMA representatives can also help with more complex cases, Rice said.

People have 60 days to appeal a FEMA denial, he said.

The Jackson County Expo, at 1 Peninger Road, Central Point, is continuing to serve as a shelter site.

The Expo hosted 48 people indoors and 93 people outdoors on a recent night, Vial said.

The American Red Cross, which took over shelter operations at The Expo, is continuing to find places for people to stay so they don’t have to shelter in a group setting, Vial said.

The donation drop-off site for supplies at The Expo has closed, he said.

This story has been corrected to show new figures for structures lost to the South Obenchain fire.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

The state and federal governments have agreed to cover the cost of removing hazardous debris such as propane tanks in areas burned by recent fires. Vickie Aldous/Mail Tribune