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Fire recovery team sees progress on Almeda fire

File photoThe speed of removing debris from the Almeda fire impressed two representative of organizations that are helping California communities recover from their own devastating megafires.

The speed of recovery efforts from the Almeda fire impressed two representative of organizations that are helping California communities recover from their own devastating megafires when they toured the Rogue Valley on Wednesday.

“It’s actually a pretty fast recovery,” said Jennifer Gray Thompson, executive director of Rebuild Northbay Foundation, which has worked on recovery efforts in counties north of San Francisco Bay since the Tubbs fire and other blazes of 2017. She has visited the Rogue Valley on two other occasions since the Almeda fire.

“From my perspective, this happened at a more rapid pace than our disaster,” said Charles Brooks, executive director of Rebuild Paradise. That town suffered the largest loss of life in California fire history in 2018 when 95% of the buildings were destroyed by the Camp fire.

A team from After The Fire, a nonprofit forming to help other communities recover from fires, toured the area Wednesday, meeting with officials and observing the effort. Thompson and Brooks are leading the work to form After The Fire. The group wants to offer its experience and expertise to assist others.

Areas in the North Bay region have experienced large-scale fires every one of the last four years, said Thompson, including fires in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties. The pace of recovery has varied in the counties, due in part to resources available, she said, but hasn’t matched the results she sees in the Rogue Valley so far. Willingness of local leaders to jump into efforts is helping here, she feels.

“I’ve seen so many leaders here lean all the way into recovery,” said Thompson. “Our goal is to observe and figure out how we could serve.”

Brooks said he was impressed with the speed in which clearing of burned sites and removal of burned trees has taken place here. County officials told him only a handful of sites remained to be cleared.

Use of burned-out manufactured home sites for Federal Emergency Management Agency transitional housing in trailers is “innovative,” said Brooks. The scheme takes advantage of infrastructure that is already in place, he noted.

FEMA officials gave the team a tour of impacted areas Wednesday morning, including a stop at the Totem Pole Park in Talent, where some FEMA trailers are already on site.

Another tour was held at the Gateway site in Talent, which the Talent Urban Renewal Agency is developing for placement of 54 trailers that could be used to house displaced residents who don’t qualify for FEMA help. Heavy equipment is already at the site moving earth in preparation for infrastructure work.

Between the Gateway and Totem Pole sites a number of structures are being built, notably in the burned-out Old Bridge Village subdivision area.

Early Wednesday afternoon the team met with Jackson County public sector representatives in Medford. The meeting included Ted Zuk, county development services director; Shandell Clark, county planning division manager; and Tom Humphrey, community development director for Central Point, who is assisting with recovery efforts.

At mid-day, with thunder rumbling and rain spitting, the team met with officials in Talent. Councilwoman Ana Byers, interim City Manager Jamie McLeod-Skinner and Community Engagement Director Hector Flores represented the city.

When Thompson jumped into recovery work in 2017, there was no experience with recovery from megafires, she said during the Talent session.

“It took us so long to figure out tactics, because we didn’t have anyone,” said Thompson. During the process some people tried to defraud the efforts while others left just a year into the work, she said.

Thompson stressed that the group wasn’t here to tell people how to do recovery, but rather to offer the lessons After The Fire has learned. She has held Zoom sessions with participants in the Rogue Valley to learn about the situation and to find local leaders to help with the group’s work.

“We didn’t want the local community to think that we are know-it-alls from California,” said Thompson. “We want people to adapt our ideas. We expect that they can be improved on.”

“They have a real wealth of knowledge they are offering,” said McLeod-Skinner. “Our request is to find ways to work together.”

A meeting with Lomakatsi Restoration Project was held at Ashland Ponds near the Bear Creek Greenway late in the afternoon. Lomakatsi has been involved with work in the fire areas and a fire resiliency project in Jackson County. Building fire resiliency is another goal for After The Fire.

More information on After the Fire can be found at afterthefireusa.org.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.