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Almeda fire sparks exodus

Carol Englund is part of the first wave of Almeda fire survivors reluctantly leaving the valley to find housing.

In the coming months, many more survivors will be making this difficult decision as they move in with family and friends in other parts of Oregon or in other states.

“Some of them have moved out of the valley because they can’t afford the valley no more,” Englund said.

The 62-year-old site manager at the 82-unit Carefree Mobile Home Park on the outskirts of Medford said the owners of her park have signed the right-of-entry agreement to allow the cleanup work and have paid the tenants a pro-rated share of their September rent.

Most of the 19 fire-ravaged parks from Ashland to Medford have taken similar steps, though there have been reports that at least one park in Talent may be demanding residents continue to pay for their empty spaces. Jackson County officials say two parks are still working on their right-of-entry agreements.

At the same time, a lot of manufactured home park residents have discovered they don’t have the financial wherewithal to buy new manufactured homes and can’t afford to wait indefinitely to move back to their former spaces.

Local and state officials are working on ideas to help residents get whole again, but the clock is ticking as fire survivors look at their options.

Englund and her husband had the foresight to buy a fixer-upper for their retirement near Klamath Falls because it’s more affordable there.

“My husband and I had an urgency that we needed to get a place while working here,” she said. “Two years ago, because we believe in God, we put our hearts into thinking about our retirement.”

They worked on their fixer-upper over that time, and after their mobile home burned down, they moved into their mostly renovated Klamath Falls house.

Englund said she commutes a few days a week to Jackson County to help the residents who were displaced from the park and also to go to a night job.

Elderly and low-income families are the most affected by the 1,500 mobile homes that were destroyed. Some have insurance and others will receive Federal Emergency Management Agency money, but it may not be enough to pay for a new mobile home.

Robin Edwards, manager of the 145-unit Royal Oaks Mobile Manor on the outskirts of Medford, lost her home to the fire, but the owners are putting her up in another park in Ashland.

While she appreciates the support from the park owners, Edwards said she’s anxious to return to her former space.

“There’s no place like home,” she said.

Edwards and other residents remain hopeful that they can move back into their old spaces, but how long they might have to wait remains unknown.

“There’s no timeline right now,” she said.

Edwards said some residents are already making the difficult decision to go elsewhere.

“People are moving out of the state, and they’re moving in with family and friends,” she said. “It’s all of those things.”

Even some residents of her park whose units survived the Almeda fire have had to move out while the cleanup of toxic debris takes place.

How long before more people decide to move away permanently depends on how long it takes to rebuild, Edwards said.

Residents of Royal Oaks have received a pro-rated share of their September rent. She said the park owners have done their best to support the residents.

“I’m impressed daily with how the management team has gone out of their way to answer all their questions,” she said.

The exodus of Rogue Valley residents and the need for both temporary housing and replacement housing is on the minds of a lot of local officials.

“For the parks, we’re going to see a huge exodus,” said Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland.

Marsh said tenants of the parks should not be responsible for the cleanup effort and should not have to pay anything because their tenancy ended Sept. 8, the day the Almeda fire started.

“I’ve heard a lot of complaints about this,” she said.

The Mail Tribune attempted to reach out to all the mobile home parks, but many either didn’t answer their phones, didn’t respond to voice mail or their phone numbers no longer appeared valid.

Displaced tenants should receive a substantial portion of their September lease payments, she said.

Marsh estimates that some 1,500 mobile homes will need to be replaced.

After the cleanup is finished, the biggest problem is to get manufactured homes to replace those that have been lost, she said.

There’s been talk of working with manufactured home manufacturers, with the potential to set up temporary production sites in Jackson County, Marsh said.

FEMA is also looking at dispersing displaced residents to various sites throughout the valley.

“We really need to expedite development of affordable housing,” she said.

In 2019, Marsh was one of the sponsors of House Bill 2896, which set up a forgivable loan program to help people buy manufactured homes.

She said some private companies have come forward to offer to facilitate these loans to help fire victims.

Many who have insurance or qualify for FEMA don’t have enough money to replace their manufactured home, so the loan program could bridge their financial gap, Marsh said.

The clock is ticking for many residents who have found temporary housing but are getting impatient for a more permanent solution, she said.

“If they don’t get something pretty soon, they’re going to look elsewhere,” Marsh said.

Kathy Kali, manager of 70-unit Bear Creek Mobile Home Park, said the park owners have signed the agreement to allow crews to begin the cleanup.

They’ve also sent out pro-rated rent checks to the tenants.

She said the average rent for a mobile home space in the area is $550, but it was only $415 in her park.

Kali said many of the residents are still trying to figure out what their next steps will be.

“We’re just in this holding pattern,” she said.

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

Bryan Vancantfort visits his destroyed home at Royal Oaks Mobile Park in Phoenix on Friday.{ }Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune