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Gov. Brown urges more housing

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Gov. Kate Brown talks Thursday morning with Judy Baalman, who lost her home during the Almeda fire in Talent.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Gov. Kate Brown talks Thursday morning with Judy Baalman, who lost her home during the Almeda fire in Talent.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown vowed Thursday to do everything possible to house displaced fire survivors, during her second day touring Jackson County.

“We need more housing,” Brown told representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

She said Project Turnkey, a state program that provides $65 million to help convert hotels into housing, has already helped Jackson County, but much more needs to be done.

Project Turnkey is helping to convert the Redwood Inn in Medford and the Super 8 in Ashland into emergency housing for fire survivors.

Other hotels in the area continue to house fire survivors awaiting rebuilding or other more permanent housing.

Jackson County, the Oregon Department of Transportation and other agencies met with Brown at Mountain View Estates in Talent.

FEMA officials vowed to get as many displaced fire survivors into manufactured homes as quickly as possible.

Brown’s tour focused on the two big issues that have rattled the valley: the pandemic and last summer’s fires.

Work was well underway to clear debris at Mountain View Estates from the Almeda fire, which destroyed 2,500 structures last Sept. 8 in Talent, Phoenix and parts of Ashland and Medford.

John Vial, emergency center director for Jackson County, said local officials struggled last year to deal with the pandemic and fires at the same time.

“Other federal and state partners came to our aid,” he said.

Jerry Marman, ODOT district manager, told Brown that 1,200 of the 1,700 lots on the cleanup list have been cleared so far. Other lots have been cleared out by property owners themselves or through their insurance companies.

Marman said work started out slow in January but has ramped up since then. There are 20 or more debris removal crews and up to 60 dump trucks in the valley.

The cleanup effort could take anywhere from six to 18 months, but Marman predicted the work should be completed closer to the six-month mark based on progress made so far.

Most of the mobile home parks should be cleared up in the near future as crews turn their focus to removing debris from individual properties.

Brown said she’s heard complaints that the cleanup effort hasn’t progressed fast enough.

“I toured the parks last fall,” she said. “It looked like a hell of a lot of work.”

Brown said it is a remarkable story how state, federal and local agencies banded together to tackle this huge undertaking.

Judy Baalman, a resident of Mountain View Estates, told the governor that she and her husband, Tony, lost their house from the fire but she appreciated the efforts of government agencies and her insurance company.

“It’s been flawless since Day 1,” she said.

Baalman said she was fortunate to have good insurance.

Joan Williamson praised the efforts to restore Mountain View Estates so her neighbors can return.

Williamson’s home was one of the few that remained standing after the fire destroyed most of the manufactured homes.

“I was blessed on so many levels,” she said.

Williamson said crews used five gallons of expired water she had stored on her property to douse the flames around her house, and then used another five bottles of water as well as some distilled water she had on hand. Finally they were able to draw water out of a pool to keep the flames at bay.

Williamson said she feels survivor’s guilt because so many of her friends are in worse shape.

“Why was I saved?” she wondered.

Brown also toured The Expo vaccination clinic Thursday but met with protests from a small group opposed to vaccinations.

Samantha Markley of Grants Pass held up a sign that stated, “Kate Brown, you are the virus.”

She asked the governor to explain what health experts she’s relying on to support these vaccination efforts.

Brown responded that she was using the best health data available that has determined the vaccines are safe and effective.

Almost 600,000 people have died from COVID-19 since it began spreading through the U.S. last year.

At Thursday’s vaccination event, both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were available, and a mobile lab was being sent out to reach those who couldn’t travel to the clinic.

“You all are doing a phenomenal job of getting shots in people’s arms,” Brown told the military personnel who have been helping run The Expo vaccination effort. “A vaccine is the best way to protect yourself.”

While The Expo can do up to 700 vaccines a day now that supplies have improved, officials are seeing vaccine hesitancy, and not as many people are registering to get their shots.

Vaccination rates in Jackson County, according to the governor’s office, are at 42% for those 16 and older. For those in the 65 and older age group, the vaccination rate is 65%.

Brown said the supply of vaccine is soon going to exceed demand, as more effort needs to be made to reach people who are reluctant to receive the vaccine.

Across the state, the Black and Latino communities are lagging behind in vaccinations, which was of concern to Brown.

Tanya Phillips, health promotions manager for Jackson County, said the county has Spanish-speaking people on hand at The Expo, and signs are available in both languages.

The county has also reached out to Unete Center for Farm Worker Advocacy and other groups to get the word out about vaccinations.

Phillips said the county is trying to use a number of methods to get the word out to minority groups.

“It’s going to take every strategy that we have,” she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.