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Mayors see good pace, disappointment in Almeda fire recovery

FILE - In this photo taken by a drone, homes leveled by the Almeda Fire line the Bear Lake Estates in Phoenix, Ore., Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Mayors of Talent and Phoenix, towns that each lost thousands of housing units in the Almeda fire a year ago, report a good pace of recovery, though both would like to see things move faster. They also would like to find better ways to aid residents at the bottom end of the economic scale who are suffering the most from the destruction.

“I’m struck between feeling we are doing a good job, but also feeling depressed about so many people who are still struggling in hotel rooms and needing to get help,” said Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood.

Phoenix Mayor Terry Baker would like to see more assistance for the people who were hardest hit by the fire. Those are people who were living in a travel trailers or older mobile homes and likely didn’t have insurance to cover replacement.

On Sept. 8 last year the Almeda fire went from north Ashland to south Medford, inflicting the most damage in two cities in between. An estimated 2,500 residences were lost in the blaze and many commercial proprieties were destroyed.

“I think we are doing better than we could have hoped for. That’s because we’ve had more help than I ever hoped for,” said Baker. A lot of assistance has come from the state and the federal government, but local governments and community members are also stepping up. “I honestly believe we are doing this well because everyone involved with the recovery has a heartfelt investment.”

“The thing that has been most remarkable is how clear out community was in setting our mission, which is to bring our families back home, and how much pressure the leaders have gotten to make sure we are getting our people back,” said Ayers-Flood.

One outgrowth of that mission has been development of the Gateway site, where 57 trailers will be set up on Talent Urban Renewal Agency land. A joint effort with the Phoenix-Talent School District, the site is targeted for families who are not eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid.

In Phoenix, 74 permits have been issued to rebuild 116 single-family houses that were lost in the fire. Permits have been issued to rebuild 84 of 150 multi-family units lost in Phoenix. In Talent, there have been 155 permits issued for 329 single-family homes destroyed.

“Folks are returning who lost their home. The overwhelming majority are coming back. The unfortunate part is that some can’t afford to come back,” said Baker. He sees guys working on houses going clear to dark.

Long term retention of FEMA trailers, intended as transitional housing, could be a good outcome for some residents and should be explored, Baker says.

Both mayors said FEMA has given really good support to the rebuilding efforts.

“We have gotten really good grants and support from FEMA that will help us in the future,” said Ayers-Flood. FEMA has been “outstanding” in Baker’s estimation.

A big surprise for Baker is the state funding a $13.6-million building that will include the Police Department, City Administration and space for Fire District 5 operations. Fire crew housing at the current fire station was lost in the Almeda blaze. The state grant will result in one new structure in place of three older ones, including an inadequate Police Station.

“We know we need to make Talent more fire resilient. We had a water crisis in the middle of the fire and we are looking at different ways to make our reservoirs more resilient in firefighting,” said Ayers-Flood. The city has also applied for grants to make spaces defensible and to reduce fuels.

Baker would like to see more removal of the underbrush down by Bear Creek. Fuels in that area funneled the Almeda fire into the city last year

“I was surprised me was to find out we are doing better than we thought. I don’t know what to expect. There’s nothing in my life to measure this against,” said Ayers-Flood. Outsiders with recovery experience have told her the effort here is moving quicker than in other locales.

Ayers-Flood said the recovery will likely be a 10-year process, although in a year the city will be settled into that she expects. The city will be envisioning the future as it rebuilds, she said.

Length of the recovery process is hard on some individuals who are living in trailers or fifth-wheels while homes are rebuilt, said Baker. He tries to spread the news whenever more assistance is awarded.

“The people are keeping a good attitude, but they get knocked down a little bit,” said Baker. “Hope is great for quite a while, but if they don’t see things happening, it is disappointing.”

“Communication has been a real challenge, being able to get the information out to everyone and just getting a handle on communication has been disappointing, but it’s understandable,” said Ayers-Flood. “For a period, it was changing daily. Staying on top of that…has been really difficult.”

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

About this series

The Mail Tribune is looking back one year after the Sept. 8 Almeda fire swept through Jackson County burning thousands of homes.

Sunday: Talent and Phoenix give progress updates

Sunday: Rosebudchannel.com and MailTribune.com A Valley from the Ashes

Wednesday: Impacts on firefighters

Wednesday: 7 p.m. KTVL News 10 hourlong special looking back on the Almeda fire

Thursday: A family who lost their home talks recovery

Friday: The people who helped the animals