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Prep work has started to clear Almeda fire debris

Prep work has started on the monumental task of cleaning up general debris left over from the Almeda fire, but there was no long-awaited scene on Monday of excavators and dump trucks hauling away ash and rubble.

The Environmental Protection Agency already finished picking hazardous debris out of the fire zone, paving the way for the general debris cleanup, which was scheduled to start Monday.

The state of Oregon is managing the general debris cleanup and hiring contractors to carry out the work.

The national disaster cleanup company AshBritt Environmental is the lead ash and debris removal contractor for Jackson County fire zones. Subcontractors working with AshBritt so far include Portland, Salem and Junction City-area companies, although more subcontractors are being added all the time, said Oregon Wildfire Recovery - Debris Management Task Force Public Information Officer Angela Beers Seydel.

Preparatory work is underway to set the stage for on-the-ground excavation and debris hauling, said Jackson County Emergency Operations Center Director John Vial.

That work includes certifying trucks and testing sites for possible asbestos contamination. If large areas are found to be asbestos-free, that could speed the cleanup work, he said.

EPA crews previously cleaned up pieces of burned debris they suspected contained asbestos, but asbestos could remain.

The state has asked property owners to fill out a questionnaire about their property to help crews plan and schedule upcoming general debris cleanup work. Crews need to know the number of burned buildings and vehicles on a property, the locations of underground tanks and other details.

The questionnaire is available online at wildfire.oregon.gov/cleanup. Call the wildfire hotline at 503-934-1700 if you are not able to complete the questionnaire online.

Crews are going over the details of the questionnaires that have been turned in, Vial said.

He said he doesn’t know yet when on-the-ground work will start, but recent rainy weather could complicate efforts.

“This weather is not helping at all,” Vial said.

Rain can turn dirt and ash into a soupy, sloppy mess that could splatter and leak out of dump trucks as they go down the road, he said.

Also the director of the Jackson County Roads and Parks Department, Vial is familiar with major excavation and construction projects.

Rain shouldn’t hamper efforts like removing the burned steel frames of mobile homes, he said.

The Almeda fire destroyed nearly 2,500 residential structures, including mobile and manufactured home parks, apartments and whole subdivisions of houses — primarily in Phoenix and Talent. It also destroyed and damaged about 200 business structures.

The South Obenchain fire destroyed about 30 residential structures and more than 50 additional structures, such as outbuildings, in rural northern Jackson County.

County officials have created a priority list of properties for the cleanup.

The top tier includes the Bear Lake Estates mobile home park in Phoenix, the Mountain View Estates mobile home park in Talent and the Northridge Terrace neighborhood between Phoenix and Medford — which was home to duplexes, triplexes and the Whispering Pines mobile home park, Vial said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and state of Oregon are paying for the fire debris cleanup, which covers both residential and business property.

The cleanup could take up to 18 months, officials estimate.

People can clean up their own property or hire contractors to do the work, but the cleanup and disposal of debris must follow local, state and federal regulations.

Some have already cleaned their property, and rebuilding has started on some parcels.

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

Rubble from the Almeda Fire awaits cleanup at Mountain View Estates in Talent. Mail Triune / Jamie Lusch
Rubble from the Almeda Fire awaits cleanup at Mountain View Estates in Talent. Mail Triune / Jamie Lusch