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Survey: 2020 wildfires took toll on physical, mental health

Spenser Heaps/Deseret News Many Jackson County residents suffered impacts to their physical, mental and financial health from the 2020 Almeda fire.
Respondents support more housing, disaster planning

An AARP survey of Jackson County residents 45 and older found that many suffered financial blows plus physical and mental health impacts from destructive 2020 wildfires.

In late 2021, AARP surveyed 910 residents via phone and text. Some were still living in their homes, while others were displaced by the Almeda and South Obenchain fires that destroyed more than 2,500 homes and 170 businesses in Jackson County.

Survey results released this month show 46% of respondents said the fires took a toll on their mental health. Among those whose homes were directly impacted, 58% reported negative mental health impacts.

However, only 17% whose mental health suffered sought professional help, AARP said.

The fires led to negative health impacts for 33% of respondents. Almost two-thirds of those people said they are fully recovered, while the rest said they are dealing with ongoing health issues, the survey found.

Fewer than half of property owners — 42% — who were impacted by wildfires said they had wildfire insurance coverage, and only 51% of renters said they had renter’s insurance.

Financial assistance remains the top need for survivors, with 22% who were displaced saying they still need financial help.

For those displaced by the fires, 45% said they didn’t use any resources to help them recover from the impacts.

Those who received help primarily received assistance from insurance companies, churches, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and nonprofit sources such as the American Red Cross, food banks and the ACCESS assistance organization, the survey found.

AARP said residents need more information about available resources, not only for rebuilding, but for treating the physical and mental health consequences of the fires.

Less than one-third of the 910 survey respondents said they received an emergency alert about the fires before the fires reached their communities.

The survey found that regardless of political views, most respondents favor policies to increase housing availability and prepare for future wildfires.

“There is overwhelming support for policies related to improving wildfire recovery efforts in Jackson County,” said Bandana Shrestha, state director for Oregon AARP.

A majority of respondents said they support:

  • Prioritizing community wildfire preparedness, including training, evacuation routes, signs and alert systems
  • Creating disaster relief housing programs to support affected renters and homeowners
  • Replacing affordable housing units lost to the fires
  • Increasing long-term recovery aid for rebuilding after wildfires
  • Federal, state and local monitoring of recovery efforts
  • Incentives to promote home improvements that increase energy efficiency and reduce air quality impacts from smoke
  • Special consideration for at-risk populations in disaster response planning
  • Local zoning changes to allow for more varied types of housing

Wildfire survivors who still need help can call the state’s survivor phone line at 1-833-669-0554 or visit wildfire.oregon.gov.

Survivors of Jackson County’s 2020 wildfires can reach the ACCESS Center for Community Resilience by calling 541-414-0318 or visiting accesshelps.org/ccr.

The center helps survivors find housing and connects them to partner agencies for help with transportation, health care, finances, disability services and other needs.

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