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Phase two housing moves forward from Expo

The Jackson County Expo will serve as the primary staging area for Federal Emergency Management Agency post-wildfire direct housing efforts throughout the state — 20 FEMA representatives will begin to receive and coordinate mobile housing units from the site Wednesday, officials said Monday.

More than 162 RVs are on the way to The Expo as of Tuesday, said John Vial, director of the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center, speaking at a Monday news conference.

Vial reminded the public that deadlines are fast approaching for various emergency resources and programs. The deadline to register for overall FEMA assistance is Nov. 16, which falls 60 days from the date a state of emergency was declared for wildfires.

Though registration numbers are improving, with 4,372 people signed up for resources, Vial said officials remain “confident and concerned” that many people affected by the fires have not registered due to concerns about eligibility or availability of services.

To date, FEMA has provided $17.3 million in grants, including $13.8 million for housing assistance. United Way of Jackson County has raised $2 million of its $3 million goal and announced last week applications are open for the first half-million of the fund, due Nov. 15. Grant awards are capped at $2,500.

The Oregon Employment Department has extended the deadline for disaster unemployment assistance to Nov. 27, for those who were prevented from accessing their place of employment or lost self-employment due to the fires. Benefits are available for lost employment from Sept. 13 through March 20, 2021.

Environmental Protection Agency strike teams have cleaned 90% of sites assigned to the agency for household hazardous waste and debris cleanup, Vial said. Nearly 200 properties do not have completed right-of-entry forms, preventing teams from cleaning them up.

“We are cautioning people to be careful,” Vial said. “If you wait too long, the strike teams and the cleanup forces will leave town and you will lose your opportunity to get your property cleaned up for free.”

Those who are fully insured and do not wish to participate in the free cleanup program should still complete a right-of-entry form opting out of the service, Vial said.

EPA strike teams focused on phase one cleanup will begin to leave the Rogue Valley Friday, while some resources will remain in the area temporarily. Phase two cleanup, focused on removing ash, trash and burned debris, will begin through a state-contracted, locally coordinated program, Vial said.

Contract bids for monitoring and physical cleanup are now open. The state has begun to review bids for the monitoring component and will begin to review cleanup bids next week. Phase two work is expected to begin later this month.

“This is a significant milestone,” Vial said. “Now we have contractors that are starting to come on board, and this work can get started to clean these sites up.”

As of last Friday, Red Cross housed nearly 600 people in hotels and RV parks, contracted through the state to continue through Dec. 31. Vial said he is eager to hear from the state what will be arranged for those people once the deadline expires.

“What the state of Oregon is telling us: There will be an alternative,” Vial said. “I don’t know what that alternative looks like yet, but they have indicated that additional housing will be provided in one way.”

Phase two transitional housing will secure shelter for those impacted by fire for six to 18 months while permanent housing is constructed. FEMA is leading a direct housing mission, which includes searching for available rentals, RV spaces and opportunities for facility retrofitting within Southern Oregon University dorms, the Elks Lodge and old hotel buildings.

Vial said significant progress has been made determining which option — or if all options together — will be the most viable transitional housing options for those impacted by fire.

FEMA spokesperson Toby Rice said mobile housing units will be available for people registered with the agency, whose primary dwelling was severely damaged or destroyed by fire. Size and composition of each household will be considered when selecting the appropriate unit and placement location. Property owners with enough room may be able to place a temporary unit on their property.

The FEMA housing assistance program, whether through rental assistance funding or direct housing, lasts 18 months from Sept. 15.

“Everyone would love to see someone in before Thanksgiving, but I don’t have a hard date on that,” Rice said of the direct housing timeline.

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

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Crews work on clean up at a destroyed neighborhood in Talent on Monday.