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Almeda large debris cleanup begins Jan. 19

The $48 million cleanup of large debris from the Almeda fire did not begin this week as planned, but Jackson County officials say crews are on track to start later this month.

Jackson County Emergency Operations Center Director John Vial said the contractor and its subcontractors missed a targeted start date of Jan. 4 because of a combination of factors, including weather and contractor certification. But crews will begin clearing oversized debris such as charred vehicles and the remains of houses starting Jan. 19, he said.

The prime contractor is AshBritt Environmental based in Florida, but Vial said at a Thursday press conference that the contractor has brought on eight subcontractors, and all teams needed to be brought “properly on board.”

“Then there’s just all the preparatory work of doing the testing for the asbestos, laying out a plan to get this work cleaned up, air monitors in place, trucks certified — you have to certify every truck that’s hauling debris — and lastly, the weather’s not helping either,” Vial said.

Because of wet weather in late December in early January, ash and soil in the Almeda fire wreckage was becoming “too soupy,” according to Vial. Ash that muddy poses challenges for transportation as well as for the local landfill where the debris is destined.

“Landfills simply will not accept soupy material,” Vial said. “It just kind of runs all over the place.”

According to Vial, “almost all” of the oversize debris that’s not recyclable will go to Dry Creek Landfill in Eagle Point.

Crews are “pretesting” cleanup sites for the presence of asbestos to determine which sites are asbestos-free.

“That pretesting, if it comes back negative, will allow them to accelerate the cleanup and work faster,” Vial said.

The first site to be cleaned will be Bear Lake Estates in Phoenix, according to Vial, because it’s the “largest mobile home park in the burn scar” with more than 200 mobile home sites.

Other “Tier 1” priority sites include Mountain View Estates in Talent, and the Northridge Terrace area between Medford and Phoenix, according to Vial.

Once work is complete on the top priority sites, contractors will branch off on Tier 2 sites that include the Barnum subdivision in Phoenix and adjacent neighborhoods, and Talent neighborhoods that include Village Court, Creekside Way, Coleman Creek Mobile Home Park and the single-family houses and multi-family apartment complexes in the areas of Rapp Road and Davidson Way, according to Vial.

Vial did not provide a time frame for the completion of any of the properties, nor sites yet to be announced, other than that Jackson County Emergency Operations will provide continual updates as the cleanup progresses.

FEMA’s top priority in the cleanup, Vial said, is cleaning up manufactured home parks so that those sheltered by FEMA can be housed at those parks.

“We support that effort,” Vial said.

Vial provided updated numbers for fire survivors receiving housing assistance.

Five hundred people were housed in 261 hotel rooms Dec. 31, just before the American Red Cross handed over sheltering responsibility to the Oregon Department of Human Services.

“That number has dropped significantly since the middle of December,” said Vial, adding that more than 60 people have found housing in the past month.

Vial said fire survivors should not see any change in their level of assistance with housing or meals, but a contact number has changed. Fire survivors housed in hotels should now call the Oregon DHS fire survivor hotline at 833-669-0554.

Vial said state legislators are working on legislation to fund the hotel housing assistance program for fire survivors through June 2022.

Starting this month, Oregon’s Multi-Agency Sheltering Transition Team or MASTT has begun interviewing fire survivors with the goal of helping them find more permanent housing.

“If anybody has stayed in a hotel room for a very lengthy period of time, they’ll recognize that it’s not the ideal situation,” Vial said.

Out of 312 people who applied for FEMA housing assistance last fall, 209 are still in need.

FEMA has trailers and other shelters set up at three locations, but the federal agency is running out of vacancies at two of the sites.

There are 35 households and 18 spaces used by displaced residents in the Southern Oregon RV Park near the Jackson County Expo in Central Point, 19 households at Willow Estates in White City and 16 households at Valley of the Rogue State Park in Gold Hill.

There’s space for four more housing units at the White City park, no vacancy at the Central Point park and a potential 38 more spaces at the Gold Hill RV park, but while space is available, Vial said, moving people to the Gold Hill park is a “challenge.”

“It’s not the most convenient place for people to live,” Vial said, saying the remote location is far from many services and lacks high-speed internet access.

More potential FEMA housing sites are in the pipeline, according to Vial.

One potential FEMA housing site is Pear Tree RV Park in Phoenix, Vial said. The park has space for 20 housing units, and Vial said FEMA is in the “final design stages” of efforts to place 20 displaced residents.

Another option is a potential group site on Colver Road property owned by Phoenix-Talent School District, which would allow for RVs and trailers at a site near ball fields and a bus depot.

There are 40 households displaced by the fire who weren’t eligible for FEMA housing assistance now living at Southern Oregon RV Park at Oregon DHS expense, plus another 10 households living at Emigrant Lake in trailers donated to the nonprofit Rogue Retreat and the Phoenix-Talent School District. The state took the reins of the program at the end of 2020, and Vial said the program is funded through the end of October.

More information about disaster aid and the Almeda fire cleanup is available at roguevalleyrebuilds.org.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Clean-up projects have begun at the Valley Oaks Community in Talent Thursday in Talent. (Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune)