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Fire victims face sticker shock

A survivor of the Almeda fire, Nick Weaver now lives in a tent and a van that overlooks the rubble of his manufactured home and the carcass of his Ford Bronco.

His lonely Ashland outpost in a wasteland of gray ash isn’t for everyone, but Weaver said that at least he’s got a home, even though it’s temporary.

“Most of my neighbors are older folks,” the 29-year-old said. “They don’t want to succumb to tent life.”

Weaver has become something of a caretaker for the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park, on the lookout for dazed house cats that he finds roaming in the ash.

“I treated one cat that was burned from the fire,” he said.

The emotional toll of losses for him and his neighbors has been overwhelming for Weaver, who took care of the community garden that helped feed some of the poorer residents. Now he’s got a new worry, with his insurance covering only about half of the cost to replace his former 1,400-square-foot double wide.

“I won’t get to have anywhere near what I had before,” Weaver said. “I’ll go from 1,400 square feet to 400 square feet.”

He said he’ll have to abandon his temporary home soon when the Federal Emergency Management Agency begins cleanup work, and he’s not sure where he’ll go next.

Weaver is one of a large group of residents who don’t have enough money to replace what they lost because they are under-insured or didn’t have insurance. Many are elderly or low-income, and the park offered an affordable housing option for them.

“Almost 30 out of 70 of the residents of our park are in dire circumstances,” said Kathy Kali, park manager.

The 70-unit Bear Creek Mobile Home Park has at least 13 under-insured households and 16 that were uninsured. Kali has been trying to keep track of which residents have insurance and which don’t, though she thinks some residents haven’t told her their situations yet.

FEMA has received requests for financial assistance from 2,887 individuals or households in Jackson County.

According to FEMA, 1,128 individuals and households in Jackson County have qualified for assistance so far, and $10,879,966.80 had been paid out as of last week. The average payout for renters and homeowners is $9,645.36.

While the numbers reflect an average payout for both renters and homeowners, reports from those who lost their manufactured homes suggest many are receiving from $30,000 to $40,000, or roughly half the cost of a new double wide. Even some of those with insurance are indicating they’re getting about the same as those qualifying for FEMA.

Many homeowners are using part of the FEMA money to cover living expenses, which means they will have even less to replace their manufactured homes. Most manufactured home owners own the building but lease the land.

The maximum payout from FEMA is $35,500 for housing assistance, and another $35,500 for other needs. In some cases, homeowners with limited insurance coverage could qualify for some FEMA assistance.

Low-interest loans for up to $200,000 are also available from the federal government. For more information, see fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fact-sheet-frequently-asked-questions-about-fema-individual-assistance.

FEMA is encouraging everyone who suffered any losses from local fires to register 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.

Residents such as Weaver are getting sticker shock because the double-wide manufactured homes cost anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000. Single wides, which many are now considering, cost about $40,000 or more. Companies that build manufactured homes are having a hard time keeping up with demand, and Kali said one Oregon manufacturer of a more cost-effective double-wide said it would take a year for delivery after an order is placed.

Kali said she’s heard similar stories from the 12 mobile home parks that have been destroyed from Ashland to Phoenix.

Another concern is rebuilding with an emphasis on taking measures to make sure communities are more fire safe. Kali said the mobile home park is in the county, so it has fewer restrictions than houses built in the city.

A property neighboring the mobile home park had high grass, which she thinks contributed to the spread of the blaze.

Kali said the owner of the mobile home park has indicated he will rebuild it, and she hopes there will be some additional help for the uninsured or under-insured.

“We have to help everybody get back to where they were,” Kali said.

Kali lost her manufactured home in the fire, but she had upgraded her insurance three months ago so she thinks she’s in good shape.

She said survivors of the fire are still coming to grips with their precarious financial situation after the fire, and still coming to terms with the emotional toll.

She said one resident, a Vietnam vet, fled the flames and hunkered down in the middle of Bear Creek for hours as the fire swept over the area.

“We thought he was gone,” she said. “I was crying when I found out he was alive.”

While survivors come and go from the park, volunteers with Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization, have offered to sift through the debris, finding items of value for the residents.

While the effort is appreciated, resident Jack Lazur, who’s staying with friends locally, said he’s about $50,000 short getting a replacement manufactured home, after receiving about $50,000 from an insurance payout.

“We’re still up in the air,” the 59-year-old said.

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

Nick Weaver lives out of his tent at the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park in Ashland after the Almeda fire destroyed his manufactured home. (Photo by Damian Mann)