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Hazardous fire debris cleanup moving quickly

Fast-working U.S. Environmental Protection Agency workers and contractors have cleared 87% of participating properties of hazardous debris left over by the Almeda fire — adding to the urgency for property owners to join the cleanup before crews leave Jackson County.

Property owners need to sign a right-of-entry form to allow EPA workers onto their land for the government-funded hazardous debris cleanup.

Visit jacksoncounty.org/roe to access the form.

Jackson County mailed out forms to 967 property owners, including the owners of manufactured home parks that each have dozens to hundreds of destroyed homes.

As of Thursday, the EPA had 627 signed right-of-entry forms for Jackson County properties, said EPA Incident Commander Randy Nattis.

Crews have cleaned 87% of those properties, Nattis said Thursday afternoon.

Some of the properties represent a single house, while some of the properties represent land with multiple homes.

Nattis estimated crews have cleaned hazardous debris from about half of the manufactured home parks.

“We are going fast. We have a rhythm,” he said.

The crews started on-the-ground work almost two weeks ago.

The EPA regularly responds to environmental disasters, from chemical spills and train derailments to wildfires that destroy homes and leave behind hazardous materials such as propane tanks, asbestos, ammunition and bleach.

This year, EPA workers and contractors have had to follow COVID-19 safety protocols to reduce the risk of catching or spreading the virus.

“Things are just a little slower than normal. We’re still doing quite well,” Nattis said.

He estimated crews will have finished most of the Jackson County hazardous material cleanup by the end of next week.

One team will likely remain in Jackson County to do mop-up work and tackle remaining properties as more right-of-entry forms trickle in. But the EPA will probably wrap up all cleanup efforts in Oregon counties around Thanksgiving — about one month from now, Nattis said.

“We won’t do this forever,” he said.

Wind-driven September firestorms ravaged communities throughout Oregon, although Phoenix and Talent suffered the most damage.

Jackson County officials had asked property owners to submit right-of-entry forms by Friday of last week, but are continuing to accept stragglers.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan said the county is doing everything it can to reach out to property owners and give them a chance to join the free hazardous materials cleanup.

The county has issued press releases and held press conferences, spread the word through social media, and done mailings, made phone calls and sent emails to property owners, Jordan said.

“We’ve even gone to individual houses where they’re staying to help them sign the forms,” he said.

Some people are happy to hear about the program and join in, while others say they are adequately insured and intend to tackle debris cleanup on their own, said Jackson County Emergency Operations Center Director John Vial.

County and city officials worry some property owners won’t clean up their property or will run out of money to clean their land. Cleanup costs could also eat into insurance money people need to rebuild.

Jordan said the fast-moving EPA hazardous waste cleanup adds to the urgency for property owners to decide whether they want to take part.

“They’ve been moving really, really fast. I’m really pleased with the effort,” he said.

Picking out the hazardous debris is the first phase in fire aftermath cleanup. Phase one is being funded at 100% by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state.

The second phase involves cleaning up the massive amounts of burned, nonhazardous debris, including the rubble of destroyed homes. FEMA has committed to covering at least 75% of the cost of that work, with the Oregon Department of Transportation spearheading the effort.

Property owners can choose to join just the hazardous debris cleanup, or both the hazardous debris and general debris cleanup.

They may be asked to contribute money for phase two if they have insurance settlement money specifically earmarked for debris cleanup — but not money needed to rebuild.

Manufactured home parks and apartment buildings won’t necessarily be included in the government-coordinated phase two cleanup effort because they are commercial properties.

FEMA generally expects businesses to carry enough insurance to rebuild.

Jackson County plans to request that manufactured home parks and apartment buildings be allowed into the phase two cleanup program since they represent so much housing for the area, Jordan said.

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

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Environmental Protection Agency workers remove hazardous materials Thursday from a Talent neighborhood that was destroyed in the Almeda fire. Jamie Lusch/Mail Tribune