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Hospitals house fire-displaced employees in trailer parks

Neurology clinic medical assistant Amy Fisk now has a place to call home after sleeping in parking lots and hotels since her Phoenix townhouse apartment burned down on Sept. 8 in the Almeda fire.

A week after the fire, Providence jumped into action to start making two temporary trailer parks on empty land it owns near to the Providence Central Point Medical Plaza and Providence Medford Medical Center.

Providence’s charitable foundations bought new fifth-wheel trailers and S&B Construction built the temporary trailer parks. Volunteers helped stock them with supplies. The health system’s displaced employees started moving into the trailers on Oct. 12.

The trailers are being served with temporary utilities for now, but Providence expects utility infrastructure will be finished in a few weeks.

Fisk, her fiance Jeff Prendergast, her daughter Mackenzie Roman and their two dogs and a cat are in their third week of living in a trailer next to the Central Point clinic.

“Providence has been so amazing and supportive. The trailer has bedding, towels, pots, pans and utensils,” Fisk said.

“It even has high thread-count sheets. They’re so soft,” Prendergast added.

Concerned for their fire-displaced workers and worried employees might have to move away due to the Rogue Valley’s housing shortage, Providence and Asante both decided the best temporary housing solution was to create trailer parks.

Providence believes 28 of its workers lost their homes and estimates 13 to 14 families needed help with temporary housing, said Providence Medford Medical Center Chief Executive Chris Pizzi.

Asante has identified 79 employees who lost their homes, said Robert Begg, vice president of human resources for Asante.

“As we were connecting with these folks, we knew housing was going to be a problem,” he said. “Housing is so short in the valley already. We want to give them an opportunity to stay here. Some people were saying, ‘I might move and work in another part of the state because I’m not finding adequate housing here.’ We looked for the quickest way to get housing.”

Adroit Construction started building a trailer park near Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford with 32 gravel pads and utilities the week before last. The company expects to finish the six-week project by Dec. 1, Asante officials said.

Some employees who will live there have their own RVs or trailers. For the rest, Asante is buying slightly used RVs from a Grants Pass dealer.

Temporary trailer and RV parks will likely become a housing option for many as the community searches for ways to shelter people during the long cleanup and rebuilding process.

The local building community is eager to help create parks, and Jackson County expects to announce news this coming week about temporary housing help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that could include FEMA trailers.

The Almeda fire wiped out 2,482 residential structures, including houses, apartment buildings and mobile and manufactured homes. Most of the losses were in Talent and Phoenix, which had served as relatively affordable towns.

The rental vacancy rate in Jackson County already was hovering near 0% before the Almeda fire and the South Obenchain fire east of Shady Cove.

The median sales price for a house for the quarter ending Sept. 30 hit $333,900 — far outstripping the buying ability of most Jackson County residents. The inventory of homes on the market has plummeted 64% since last year, according to the Rogue Valley Association of Realtors.

Searching for housing

With ashes falling from the sky, flames approaching and first responders using loudspeakers and sirens to warn people to flee, Fisk and her family barely made it out of Phoenix on roads clogged by Almeda fire evacuees.

She and her fiance slept in their Jeep in a Providence parking lot and a Walmart parking lot on the first nights while she sent her daughter to stay with her mother.

They thought they were just evacuating for a few nights and then could return home. That’s when Fisk saw a photo of their burned down apartment building on Facebook.

“I was getting out of my Jeep and I saw the look on her face when she saw it on her phone,” Prendergast said. “It was a horrible look.”

Then Providence called and paid for the family to stay in a hotel for a month. The organization is one of many, including the American Red Cross, housing people in hotels.

Fisk and Prendergast spent their time at the hotel searching the valley for an apartment.

“You wake up every morning and call all the rental companies and ask if there are any new listings because the other ones all have 30 applications for them,” Fisk said. “You try to be first in line for any new spot that opens up.”

They finally got approved for a place in Ashland and went to look at it.

“It was massively overpriced. It was 400 square feet for $1,000 a month and it was filthy. I actually cried when we went and saw it,” Fisk said.

Prendergast said it would have been hard to get through the recovery process living in such a depressing place.

When Providence offered the use of a new trailer, the couple jumped at the chance.

“I don’t know where we would be right now without Providence,” Fisk said.

Where are the survivors?

Fisk and her family aren’t alone in their ordeal to find new housing.

Almost two months after the Almeda fire, most displaced people have yet to move into a rental or find a home to buy.

There are currently 4,222 people registered with FEMA for disaster aid. Not all displaced people have registered.

Of registered people, 2,094 are staying with family and friends; 791 are in hotels and motels; 508 are in damaged homes; 145 are homeless; 132 are in RVs and campers; 62 are living in cars; 59 are in group shelters; 29 are in tents; 19 are staying at their workplace and 12 are at a house of worship, according to estimates compiled from data from government agencies, nonprofits and other organizations helping fire survivors.

So far, an estimated 255 people have found a new temporary rental, 60 found a new permanent rental, 42 are living in a secondary residence like a vacation cabin and 14 have bought a new home.

Fisk and Prendergast said they feel they are among the lucky ones.

“There are a lot more people who are less fortunate,” she said. “They lost loved ones and animals. We lost a lot a lot, but we’ve got each other.”

Snug in their trailer, the family has movie nights, games nights and spends time talking about what they’ve been through and supporting each other. Fisk’s daughter is finishing out her senior year online through the Phoenix-Talent School District.

Avid campers and hikers, they’ve adjusted to living in a trailer — although they’ve learned to keep a close eye on their water tanks and conserve their battery power until they get connected to electricity.

They offered words of encouragement to other fire survivors.

“It does get better. Day by day, it does get better. Hang in there,” Prendergast said.

Pizzi, the chief executive director for Providence Medford Medical Center, said local hospitals already had trouble before the fires attracting and retaining workers because of the lack of housing and high prices in the Rogue Valley.

Providence is working with city councils and builders to advocate for more high-density, multi-family housing to serve all residents, he said.

Providence moved quickly to build the temporary trailer parks, but knows they don’t represent a long-term fix to the area’s housing woes, said Dr. Tom Lorish, chief executive for the Providence Southern Oregon Service Area.

“There was a crisis before the wildfires and it’s been made much more acute. It’s a good opportunity for the community to come together to make sure people have a reasonably priced, affordable place to live,” he said.

Right now, the immediate task is creating temporary housing for fire survivors. But the community has to look ahead as it transitions to rebuilding Talent and Phoenix — while also boosting affordable housing in all communities, Lorish said.

“The real target needs to be, ‘What are we going to have in two years?’” he said.

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

Amy Fisk, left, Jeff Prendergast and Mackenzie Roman are living at a temporary trailer park at Providence made for fire displaced workers in Central Point. (Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch)