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Massive fire debris cleanup to start in January

Government-funded work will start Jan. 4 to clean up the massive volume of debris left behind by the Almeda fire.

The Environmental Protection Agency and its contractors have already finished picking out hazardous materials from the fire area by hand, paving the way for heavy equipment to move in and clear away rubble, damaged concrete foundations, burned vehicles and other debris.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is managing the second, larger debris cleanup phase. The state is awarding contracts for cleanup from devastating September wildfires that swept across Oregon.

In Southern Oregon, the state has awarded a $48 million contract to Florida-based AshBritt Environmental to clean up nearly 1,300 properties charred by the Almeda fire in southern Jackson County and the South Obenchain fire in the northern part of the county, said Jackson County Emergency Operations Director John Vial.

The cleanup won’t cost property owners or local governments anything. The project covers homes, businesses and agricultural buildings including barns, Vial said.

AshBritt plans to meet or exceed a standard to hire at least 85% Oregon contractors, said Brittany Perkins Castillo, a company spokeswoman.

Local officials have created a priority list for where the general debris cleanup should start, Vial said.

The top priority list includes Bear Lake Estates Mobile Home Park in Phoenix, Mountain View Estates Mobile Home Park in Talent and the Northridge subdivision of mobile homes, duplexes and other mixed housing between Phoenix and Medford, Vial said.

Bear Lake Estates was a 210-space mobile home community for people 55 and older before it was destroyed by the Almeda fire. Mountain View Estates had more than 160 spaces, according to websites for the burned parks.

Vial said those sites were prioritized because it’s more efficient for contractors to work on large sites rather than repeatedly packing up and moving to scattered smaller locations. The properties represented a large supply of housing, and rebuilding could start quickly after the cleanup.

“We want to get the cleanup effort off to a good start,” Vial said.

Contractors will work Monday through Saturday to clean up the debris, he said.

In the worst-case scenario, cleaning up the fire debris everywhere could take 18 months, he said.

“We think it’s going to go much quicker than that,” Vial said.

The Oregon Department of Transportation is sending letters to property owners about the cleanup operation, he said.

Jackson County has previously done extensive outreach to property owners to ask them to sign right-of-entry forms to allow crews onto their land to clean up hazardous and general debris.

Vial said about 177 people have opted out of cleanup efforts, and the county still is missing 111 right-of-entry forms.

Visit jacksoncounty.org/roe to access a form and join the general debris cleanup effort.

“You can attempt to clean up a property yourself. There is nothing prohibiting that. You’re allowed to do so,” Vial said, but noted people have to follow local, state and federal laws about cleanup and disposal of debris.

In other fire aftermath news, the Oregon Department of Health will take over the mission to shelter and feed fire survivors starting in January. That effort will continue through at least June 30, 2021, Vial said.

The American Red Cross has been housing people in hotels, but the organization’s contract with the state for that work expires Dec. 31, he said.

After thousands lost their homes, many fire survivors are living with friends or family or have found other housing. But 555 individuals were still staying in 279 hotel rooms as of Monday, Vial said.

Finding new places to live has been difficult for many. Jackson County’s rental vacancy rate was about 1.5% even before the fires, and for-sale house prices had shot up amid low supply, according to local housing and real estate experts.

The Almeda fire damaged or destroyed more than 2,600 homes, and the South Obenchain fire destroyed more than 30 homes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is continuing its work to create temporary housing for survivors.

“The search for housing continues. FEMA is not done with that,” Vial said.

Currently 256 households are requesting FEMA housing help, he said.

One option is cleaning up burned mobile home parks and moving FEMA-provided trailers into the spots. Park owners would be paid rent for use of the land. Seven mobile home park owners with eight parks have expressed interest in participating. Together, they have more than 400 home sites, Vial said.

“This right now looks like a very promising option,” he said.

FEMA has contracted with Jackson County to use the county-owned Southern Oregon RV Park near The Expo in Central Point. So far, 20 families live there and there are plans to add 12 more, Vial said.

In White City, FEMA has started construction on an unfinished subdivision called Willow Estates. Plans call for moving 23 mobile homes to the subdivision, including 12 for people with accessibility needs, Vial said.

The goal is to finish that project and get people moved in by Christmas Eve, he said.

FEMA is in discussions to use the state-owned Valley of the Rogue Park outside the town of Rogue River for 39 RV spots, he said.

FEMA has been sourcing RVs from around the region and those continue to arrive at a staging area at The Expo. On Monday, there were 83 RVs. Those RVs are hauled off as sites become available, Vial said.

Nearly 4,600 people registered for FEMA help in relation to the Jackson County fires. FEMA has provided $23.1 million in aid, primarily through housing assistance, Vial said.

Along the burned Bear Creek Greenway, arborists have felled hazardous trees that could fall on people using the walking, jogging and biking path. The county has closed off-trail use in the Greenway area because hazardous trees remain standing away from the path.

The county encourages people to keep using and enjoying the Greenway path itself, which remains open, Vial said.

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

Bear Lake Estates mobile home park is high on a priority list for the cleanup of general fire debris scheduled to start in January. The government-funded cleanup of hazardous debris is complete in the Almeda fire area. AP Photo/Noah Berger