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County offers rough timeline for phased fire cleanup

Jackson County officials repeated pleas to allow state and federal resources to handle residential post-fire cleanup during a press conference Monday, though Emergency Operations Center Director John Vial estimated a large-scale ash and trash cleanup operation is still several months away.

The more immediate cleanup of hazardous household debris starts this month.

Property owners should sign a right-of-entry form through the county to allow cleanup crews onto their land. Visit jacksoncountyor.org/recovery to access the form.

People who suffered any losses from the Almeda and South Obenchain fires should register with FEMA to get financial help, including money for temporary housing — even if they have insurance. To register, visit disasterassistance.gov.

Jackson County contains 50% of all damaged and destroyed structures from Oregon fires, but only 34% of registrations, Vial said.

Resource centers at Central High School in Medford, Talent Elementary School and the Phoenix Civic Center are open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with Spanish-speaking representatives on site.

For phase one of the cleanup, which involved removing hazardous household debris, crews have arranged storage trailers, offices, wash stations and a collection area at the Boise Cascade yard in Central Point and began a “soft start” on work Monday, Vial said. Full crews will arrive Oct. 19 — eight crews of six to seven people each — to clean up hazardous debris “in earnest” through the service, which is free to members of the public impacted by fire.

FEMA and the state are covering 100% of the cost so long as property owners sign a right-of-entry form to allow crews onto their property.

Vial addressed some concerns from the public about the Boise Cascade yard being used to store trash and ash, which will not be addressed until phase two of the cleanup.

“We’re not going to have hundreds of dump trucks going down Highway 99, dumping that material on Boise Cascade across the street from those that live on Beall Lane. That’s not happening,” Vial said.

Household hazardous waste materials like pool chemicals, batteries and propane tanks will be staged at the yard, packaged and hauled to an appropriate landfill for disposal when the major team arrives. The staging area is not for public access. If residents are doing cleanup work themselves, they must contact the landfill to arrange proper testing and disposal of hazardous materials, he said.

The deadline to submit right of entry forms is Oct. 16, though latecomers will not be excluded from the program if they miss the deadline.

The plan for ash and trash collection still is in development with the state, Vial said, with the intent of soliciting contractors to execute large-scale, comprehensive and systematic cleanup. Preliminary estimates indicate 200 trucks per day would be leaving sites with the material.

A target start date has not been set for beginning phase two work — contracts are being written and final negotiations with the state are in progress — but may not begin for a couple of months, Vial said. Still, the service may be worth the wait.

If a property owner signs up for the program to remove ash and trash in a “coordinated, state-managed process that’s going to occur systematically from beginning to end,” no federal, state or local agency will attempt to reclaim insurance money that would otherwise go toward home rebuilding, Vial said.

Money set aside in an insurance policy for debris removal isn’t accessible to the property owner anyway, and would be the only pot of money the state may seek after cleanup has ended. If a property owner received a lump sum from insurance, none of that money will be sought until the home rebuilding process is complete and a determination can be made if there are any funds left over, he said.

“If you attempt to do a cleanup on your own, cleanup costs are going to come out of this total settlement, and it’s very likely that you’re going to end up paying way more by trying to do this work on your own than if you were to allow the state to come in and do this on a comprehensive, systematic basis,” Vial said.

Jackson County was also approved for a FEMA direct housing assistance program, which boosts the agency’s role in providing direct housing assistance to property owners — a rare award and a “win” for the county, Vial said.

Damage and destruction estimates continue to be improved, with numbers as of Monday: 3,614 structures reviewed, 2,482 residential structures destroyed, 123 residential structures damaged, 173 commercial structures destroyed and 25 commercial structures damaged.

Red Cross representative Joanna King reported nearly 900 people have used the organization’s services over the past month, including spiritual care, mental and physical health resources and emergency housing. Outreach events began Monday afternoon at multiagency resource center sites.

The latest updates on rebuilding efforts and resource links, including right of entry forms, can be found at jacksoncountyor.org/recovery.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.