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People with burned property can opt into coordinated cleanup

Jackson County commissioners declared a state of emergency Tuesday about the miles of hazardous debris left in the aftermath of local fires — paving the way for federal and state funding to help in the estimated $194 million cleanup effort.

The declaration includes the Almeda fire that burned major portions of Talent and Phoenix, the South Obenchain fire that destroyed rural homes and structures in northern Jackson County and other smaller blazes from the devastating 2020 fire season.

County officials are urging property owners to sign right-of-entry forms to allow Environmental Protection Agency cleanup crews onto their land to remove hazardous debris. (This story was corrected to show the cleanup crews are with EPA.)

Without that permission, property owners can’t take part in the coordinated cleanup effort.

The county would like property owners to complete the forms by Oct. 16. If some miss that deadline, they can still be included, but they should complete the forms as soon as possible,said John Vial, acting director of the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center.

"The quicker we get these forms, the quicker we can proceed," he said.

Cleaning up hazardous debris could start Oct. 19 with eight crews of six to seven people, Vial said. (This story was corrected to show a potential on-the-ground start date of Oct. 19.)

Cleaning up hazardous debris is phase one in the cleanup process. The estimated $7.75 million cost will be born by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Oregon.

After the hazardous materials are removed, the much larger task of cleaning up remaining debris will cost nearly $186.5 million, according to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management.

FEMA will pay at least 75% of those costs, but the state is asking the federal agency to cover 100% of the massive costs, Vial said.

Covering 25% of nearly $186.5 million — approximately $46.6 million — would be overwhelming for Phoenix, Talent, the county and property owners. Many residents lacked insurance or were underinsured, Vial said.

Property owners who want cleanup help can opt into the hazardous materials cleanup, or opt into both the hazardous materials cleanup plus remaining debris cleanup when they fill out a right-of-entry form for their property.

“All impacted property owners who are seeking assistance in the debris cleanup process have to complete this form before officials can assist with the cleanup,” said Jackson County Development Services Director Ted Zuk. “If you are owner of an impacted property, please complete this form, or if you know of a property owner who has been impacted, make sure they are aware of this form.”

Jackson County and the cities of Talent and Phoenix are recommending that property owners not attempt to clean their properties on their own.

Hazardous debris has to be collected and disposed of by qualified contractors. That debris includes propane tanks, pesticides, fertilizer, ammunition, bleach, batteries and other toxic or dangerous products.

Vial said local officials hope that as one area is cleared of hazardous debris, the cleanup of remaining materials can follow soon after — rather than waiting for the hazardous debris to be cleaned up everywhere before the general debris cleanup starts.

Jackson County has mailed right-of-entry forms to all 959 property owners who have been identified as needing to fill out a form, officials said this week.

Completed forms can be mailed or dropped off at Jackson County Development Services, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Room 100, Medford, OR 97501.

With people scattered after the fires, the county is also offering other ways for people to access and fill out the forms.

Forms are available at jacksoncounty.org/ROE. Forms can be filled out online or paper forms can be scanned and emailed to colemanrk@jacksoncounty.org.

Forms are also available at Multi Agency Resource Centers set up to aid fire victims, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., at Central High School, 815 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford; Talent Elementary School, 307 Wagner Creek Road; and the Phoenix Civic Center, 220 N. Main St.

People with questions can call the right-of-entry hotline at 682-800-5737.

The Almeda fire wiped out large portions of Jackson County’s affordable housing when it destroyed manufactured homes and trailer parks along with other types of housing.

The fortunate side is many of the parks are owned by one person or business, which makes it easier for Jackson County to get an owner to sign a right-of-entry form and agree to take part in the coordinated cleanup effort, said County Administrator Danny Jordan.

Because of the overwhelming cost, Jordan said federal cleanup funding is critical for the restoration of local communities.

The Almeda fire destroyed 2,489 residential structures, including single family houses, apartment complexes and manufactured and trailer homes. It wiped out 173 business buildings and four government structures, according to the latest count Tuesday.

The South Obenchain fire destroyed 33 residential structures and 56 additional structures, such as outbuildings.

Jackson County officials are urging all individuals and businesses who suffered losses from the fires to register with FEMA at disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362 or 1-800-462-7585 TTY. Help is available on a variety of fronts, including housing aid.

“We want to make sure you can access disaster assistance,” said FEMA Division Supervisor Toby Rice.

People who have received an initial notice that their claim has been denied should call FEMA or visit FEMA representatives at the local Multi Agency Resource Centers in Medford, Phoenix and Talent to get individualized help. Spanish interpretation is available.

Even those who have insurance should register with FEMA because insurance may not meet all of their expenses, especially if they need alternate housing during the rebuilding process, Rice said.

Registering helps the overall community by demonstrating to FEMA the widespread harm of the local fires, Jordan and Vial said.

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

Cleaning up Almeda fire debris requires the removal of hazardous items followed by the remaining burned material.{ }Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
Cleaning up Almeda fire debris requires the removal of hazardous items followed by the remaining burned material.{ }Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune