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Many hands, anything but light work

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To clear the oversized wreckage left in the Almeda fire’s path of destruction, crews from at least four states are working on one Southern Oregon job site.

Nearly five dozen workers from at least three contractors had cleared and excavated a handful of sites Friday at the former Bear Lake Mobile Estates in Phoenix, but the neighborhood filled with twisted metal and charred remnants of roughly 200 homes illustrated the monumental task ahead.

“It’s been a few days that they’ve been on,” said Debris Management Task Force spokesman Kevin Alvarado, adding that crews hired by the state began phase two of the cleanup process Jan. 16.

Phase one, the EPA contracted hazardous debris cleanup, was completed in November, and, according to Alvarado, by the time phase two is complete the land will be ready for construction and the soil will be certified clear.

“The property owners will receive a letter from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality that states that this mobile home park is ready for rebuilding,” he said.

At the job site were vehicles with license plates from Michigan and Nevada, while a commercial truck hauling excavation gear was with an Alabama company.

ODOT Operations Chief Jerry Marmon said it’s too soon to say whether the cleanup is slowing from a projected six to 18 months.

“These crews that are out here are professionals, this is what they do for a living,” Marmon said. “Although the sites are very challenging, they know what they’re doing and nothing really stands out as a huge obstacle.”

Getting clean bills of health for the hundreds of properties impacted by the Sept. 8, 2020, fire will involve three primary areas of work, and likely take at least a year.

Crews start by collecting and consolidating metal debris such as the siding on homes or remains of cars. The metal is crushed on site and transported to a nearby recycling facility.

Concrete debris is recycled locally at Knife River Materials in Central Point, according to Marmon, and ash and other remaining debris will be disposed of at the Dry Creek Landfill in Eagle Point.

Excavators will level and grade the soil on the property, and the final step, according to Marmon, is soil samples to “make sure that any contamination that was present is now gone after the excavation is done.”

“And it’s gonna happen over 200 times just like that,” Marmon said.

Once crews get about three quarters of the way through Bear Lake Mobile Estates, they’ll move on to other job sites — prioritizing other local mobile home parks first among other high density neighborhoods.

“The idea is that we’re always kind of hopscotching,” Marmon said. “The county set those priorities, and we’re working with them ... a lot of work to be done.”

When crews transition to cleanups at traditional wood-frame homes and other structures, Marmon said crews may need to set up road blocks or keep pedestrians out of neighborhoods.

“It’ll be a bigger challenge, but it’s not insurmountable,” he said.

Jackson County Emergency Management Director John Vial described the new phase of the cleanup as “a major step in the healing process.”

Vial described the cleanup process as “state contracted, locally coordinated.” The lead contracting agency is ODOT, according to Vial, and it hired AshBritt Environmental out of Florida for the cleanup project.

“But the local government has a role in coordinating this work and determining who goes first,” Vial said.

That coordination is through the Debris Management Task Force, which is composed of the county and the cities of Phoenix and Talent. The task force opted to make Bear Lake Mobile Estates the first on the list.

“We wanted to start in a location that was very compact with facilities close together, and that the contractor could get the maximum amount of work done in the shortest amount of time,” Vial said. “The park fit that bill.”

Mobile home parks have the top priority in the task force’s cleanup process, according to Vial, in part because FEMA will be able to house displaced locals in trailers at the restored sites.

“The community’s going to see some great progress going forward,” Vial said.

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

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Metal debris including a torched vehicle is crushed and ready to be transported to a local metals recycler during the new phase of the Almeda fire cleanup Friday at the former Bear Lake Mobile Estates on Luman Road in Phoenix. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune.