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Cleanup underway in Almeda fire zone

Jackson County has received about two-thirds of the permission forms it needs from property owners for the massive effort to clean up debris left in the aftermath of the Almeda fire.

Hazardous waste cleanup crews are focusing on areas where they have permission to clean a high concentration of burned homes, said Environmental Protection Agency Incident Commander Randy Nattis.

Hopscotching from one area to another wastes time. Workers have to take off their protective gear, throw it away and don new gear when they move, so staying in one area is more efficient, he said.

They’re usually at each individual home site for a few hours picking out paint, cleaners, pesticides, fuel, batteries, ammunition, propane tanks and other hazardous debris.

“You’ll be surprised how many potentially harmful materials survive these intense wildfires,” Nattis said.

In the field, they’re sorting, stabilizing and packaging the hazardous materials, then taking them to a temporary staging area in Central Point. That site is not open to the public. Bulk shipments of different types of waste will be transported to licensed facilities, including some out of state, Nattis said.

With support from the U.S. Coast Guard, EPA crews and contractors did a “soft start” over the weekend and cleared hazardous debris from 21 properties, he said.

By the end of the work day Monday, the number of sites with a clean bill of health jumped to more than 100, Nattis said.

Crews put up signs at each cleaned site saying, “This property’s Household Hazardous Waste removal has been designated COMPLETE.”

The cleanup of hazardous debris is free to property owners. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Oregon are covering 100% of that first phase of cleanup.

Phase two involves the larger task of clearing away nonhazardous debris, including rubble, metal manufactured home foundations and ash.

FEMA has committed to covering at least 75% of phase two costs. Property owners may be asked to contribute money if they have insurance settlement money specifically earmarked for debris cleanup — but not money needed to rebuild.

To sign up for phase one or phase one plus phase two cleanup, see www.jacksoncounty.org/roe to access the right-of-entry permission form.

Jackson County is asking property owners to sign the form by Friday, Oct. 23.

The county mailed out 967 right-of-entry forms to property owners, said John Vial, acting director of the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

People have also accessed the form online and in other locations, even if they weren't necessarily property owners.

Vial said Tuesday the county has received about 946 signed forms, but slightly less than 600 actually count. Others came from people who lived in mobile homes, for example, but don't actually own the land where their home sat before the fire.

The owner of a manufactured or mobile home park needs to sign the right-of-entry form so EPA crews can clear hazardous debris from the home sites in a park, Vial said.

“How long it takes for us to do our job depends on how quickly we can get our signed ROEs so we can get the job done safely and faster,” Nattis said.

Hazardous debris is cleaned up first so workers who come in later to clear the remaining material aren’t exposed to potentially harmful chemicals and toxic products, he said.

Hazardous debris cleanup could go through December, said Lauren Wirtis, public information officer for the Oregon Debris Management Task Force.

But all of Phoenix and Talent doesn’t have to be cleared of hazardous debris before the general debris removal can start. Once one area is clear of hazards, the phase two general debris cleaning can start there, Wirtis said.

“Before rebuilding our community can start, we have to clean this mess up,” Vial said.

He said immediately after the Almeda fire, local officials knew the task of cleaning up was far beyond anything Jackson County and the residents of Phoenix and Talent could handle alone. They called the Oregon Office of Emergency Management to ask for help, triggering a response from FEMA, EPA, American Red Cross and other agencies and organizations.

The wind-driven Almeda fire destroyed 2,482 residential structures, including manufactured homes, apartment complexes and houses.

The fire destroyed 173 business structures.

“The cities of Talent and Phoenix look like somewhat of a war zone,” Vial said.

The launch of work to clean up the hazardous debris is a major step forward, he said.

“This is a promising day for Jackson County and the citizens of the Rogue Valley in response to the fires that tore through our valley,” he said.

To get more property owners involved in the coordinated cleanup, the state hired a consulting firm to reach out to them. Some have been hard to find because they scattered to find shelter after their homes burned, Vial said.

“We know that some people will refuse, and for those people who refuse, we’ll skip over their properties and we’ll clean another site,” he said, adding that the government will not force anyone to take part.

But Vial noted the hazardous debris cleanup is free for property owners. Most people want to join once they learn more.

“It’s a big benefit, and they should take advantage of it,” he said.

The Almeda fire destroyed 18 manufactured home parks that each had 40 to more than 200 home spaces, Vial said.

He said many of those parks were owned by one property owner, which makes it easier to get a signed right-of-entry form to cover the whole park. Cleaning hazardous debris and remaining material from those parks is a high priority because they contain so many housing spaces.

Residents may want to stand and watch the cleanup crews at work, but they’re urged to keep their distance and not interrupt the workers.

Nattis said the EPA crews are practicing social distancing, wearing masks and washing their hands whenever possible to reduce the risk of COVID-19. Workers are staying with their own crews, rather than mixing and matching team members.

Property owners with questions about the hazardous waste removal can call 541-225-5549. They can also provide information about their property, such as if workers will encounter a locked gate or a damaged bridge. The hotline offers service in English and Spanish.

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

An Environmental Protection Agency contractor spray paints material that might contain asbestos while cleaning up hazardous debris left over by the Almeda fire in Phoenix. (Photo courtesy EPA)