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Jackson County nears second part of Almeda fire cleanup

State, federal and local officials are gearing up for the next phase of the Almeda fire cleanup although, according to Jackson County officials, dozens of impacted property owners still haven’t signed up for phase one.

Crews are now weeks away from a second phase of removing the destroyed vehicles, concrete rubble and other large debris from the burn scar, Jackson County Emergency Operations Center director John Vial said Wednesday at a press conference. Once the second phase is complete, all that’s left is soil tests before building permits can be issued for fire damaged properties.

The second phase of ash and trash debris cleanup will be free to property owners who provide right of entry forms, Vial announced Wednesday. Vial called the announcement “fantastic news.”

The first phase of removing hazardous materials is also free.

“Bottom line is what’s being proposed now and what is going to be completed under the state’s leadership is a comprehensive cleanup,” Vial said. “All properties that provide access to the state will be picked up.”

Vial estimates that some neighborhoods impacted in the Almeda fire could see as many as 200 dump truck loads to handle the massive amounts of debris for a cleanup valued in the ballpark of $200 million. The county is accepting bids for ash and trash cleanup through Friday.

About 175 property owners have not provided access for cleanup crews, according to Vial, and there’s less than two weeks for them to sign up. The county has been unable to reach 87 impacted property owners at all.

“In order to do any of this work, rights of entry have to be provided,” Vial said.

Forms are available at jacksoncounty.org/roe or by calling 682-800-5737, and until Saturday forms can also be picked up from FEMA at Central Medford High School.

FEMA has registered 4,515 Jackson County residents impacted by the Southern Oregon fires including 70 property owners added this week. The registrations qualify impacted property owners for some $19.6 million worth of federal disaster aid, according to Vial, along with hazardous waste and debris cleanups at no cost to the property owner.

“These are significant amounts of money that are being distributed to our valley,” Vial said.

In addition to the second phase of debris cleanup, Jackson County Emergency Operations Center is also preparing for the second phase of emergency housing — in which shelter provided by FEMA will take over for the American Red Cross starting in the new year.

As of Monday, the Red Cross was sheltering 550 displaced individuals in 285 hotel rooms around the Rogue Valley, Vial said. The Red Cross’ contract with the state ends Dec. 31.

“After that we’ve been given additional assistance can be provided if people are not placed yet,” Vial said.

Vial said that “just short of 50%” of local fire victims who’ve registered with FEMA are staying with friends and family, 17% are staying in hotels and 6% are living in a new rental property they’ve procured.

“Most people do have a place to stay,” Vial said. “Most people are safe and as far as we can tell there’s very few people sleeping in cars or simply completely homeless at the moment.”

As of Tuesday morning, FEMA estimates that 302 displaced households will need FEMA shelter, but Vial said the numbers often change as individuals find housing or lose housing.

The medium-term housing options are “starting to narrow down” after Tuesday meeting with FEMA, the county and mobile home park owners. During the meeting, FEMA offered to take the reins on cleanup and restoring utilities at mobile home parks destroyed in the Almeda fire, installing FEMA trailers on site and paying park owners rental fees.

“Basically FEMA’s proposing bringing people back to the same neighborhoods they were displaced from,” Vial said. “Which is exactly what we were hoping for.”

Agreements are still being negotiated, but Vial described the FEMA trailers on mobile home parks as their housing “priority No. 1.”

Other housing priorities involve the Southern Oregon RV park, county parks and state parks.

A staging area at the Jackson County Expo currently has 10 RVs and eight mobile home units, Vial said.

The Bear Creek Greenway restoration efforts are holding up after the first big rains of the season, according to Vial, thanks to two truckloads of straw or 175 bales and 40,000 pounds of grass seed.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

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. (File photo courtesy EPA)