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Fire cleanup more than halfway done

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A cleaned up manufactured home park in Phoenix awaits new homes.
FEMA to meet with survivors who need financial help

The cleanup of the Almeda fire area is more than halfway done and the government-funded part of the effort could be finished by the end of the summer, said Jackson County Emergency Operations Manager John Vial.

Private and publicly funded crews have cleared well over 50% of the burned area and perhaps as high as 70%, Vial estimated Monday.

Most people are taking part in a cleanup paid for by the state of Oregon and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That cleanup of major debris and hazard trees started in January after Environmental Protection Agency contractors first picked out hazardous material.

“This process got off to a slow start, and that was frustrating to survivors and property owners, to the county, to the cities and for all of us,” Vial said. “And then once it started, it struggled for a while. But boy, they are in full gear now and this cleanup is progressing very rapidly. We were told that this could take between six to 18 months. It's going to take six, but we're going to beat 18 ― and we're pretty pleased with that.”

Other fire survivors hired their own contractors to clean up their property, with some able to get an earlier start than the government-funded crews.

Most of the 20 mobile home parks that burned in September 2020 are cleaned up or nearly cleaned, Vial said.

"That's very positive news and we're excited to report that," he said.

Of the almost 2,500 homes destroyed by the Almeda fire, nearly 1,500 were in mobile home parks. Cleanup crews have targeted mobile home parks and apartments first as a way to maximize the amount of housing that can come back quickly.

The second priority is compactly built subdivisions and downtown business districts. Three of those eight identified areas are already in the cleanup process. They are the Northridge Terrace and Oak Crest neighborhood, the northern Talent and Oak Valley subdivision area, and the Barnum area in Phoenix, Vial said.

Scattered homes and business properties are third on the priority list, with all other properties in the fourth tier, he said.

Talent and Phoenix were hardest hit by the fires that left more than 4,200 people homeless and destroyed more than 170 business buildings.

FEMA plans to move about 97 households into FEMA trailers in the Totem Pole and Rogue Valley Mobile Estates parks. Those survivors could move in during the first week of June, Vial said.

Other survivors who qualify for FEMA housing aid are living around the Rogue Valley in FEMA trailers and RVs.

Still, 747 fire survivors remain housed in local hotels paid for by the state of Oregon, Vial said.

Meanwhile, FEMA is sending representatives to meet in person with fire survivors who are struggling to get financial help from FEMA or who have questions about their applications.

"There's quite a few survivors who are struggling with this FEMA process,“ Vial said. ”They're asking questions. They're frustrated. They just feel like they can't get their questions answered on a phone call.“

Others have had their claims rejected but feel FEMA didn’t consider all the circumstances, or they don’t know why they were rejected. This represents a chance for them to try again, Vial said.

Survivors need to call by 5 p.m. Friday to be put on a list for an appointment with a FEMA representative. The hours to call are between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day through Friday.

For English, call the Phoenix-Talent School District at 541-821-7135 or Jackson County at 541-770-3480.

For Spanish, call the Phoenix-Talent School District at a different number, 541-821-7697.

In-person appointments with FEMA representatives will be held May 1-4 at the Talent Community Center, located at 104 E. Main St. behind Talent City Hall, and May 7-10 at the Phoenix Plaza Civic Center, 220 N. Main St.

Weekday and weekend appointments are available.

"I'm excited that they're willing to reengage with people on a face-to-face basis. I think this is a benefit for our community and a benefit to survivors that they get to sit down with somebody and say, 'Hey, here's what's going on and here's why I think you should look at it differently.’ So I'm please that FEMA is taking this step," Vial said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.