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Rebuild challenges, mental health needs highlighted at fire survivor hearing

Scott Stoddard/Associated Press The destruction of Coleman Creek Estates and other manufactured home parks in Phoenix and Talent are seen in this September 2020 file photo. Local wildfire survivors told Oregon legislators Tuesday about continued challenges rebuilding after the Almeda fire.

From a desire to protect future fire survivors from having to fight their insurance companies to the ongoing mental health struggles of living in temporary housing long-term, several Jackson County residents who survived the Almeda fire in 2020 gave Oregon legislators much to consider about how the Labor Day fires still affect them.

A handful of Jackson County residents were among the nearly 20 wildfire survivors from across the state who opened up about their losses and shared ongoing concerns to the Oregon House Special Committee on Wildfire Recovery in an online public meeting Tuesday night.

Kathy Kali, a former manufactured home park manager now active with the nonprofit Almeda Fire Zone Captains program, highlighted the rising costs of manufactured homes and rising construction costs to the committee of eight state representatives, including Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, and Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass.

Zone Captains is now helping about 500 people of the roughly 3,000 households impacted by the Almeda fire, Kali said.

She praised Marsh’s legislation focused on helping manufactured home owners, who made up more than half of those impacted in Phoenix, Talent and north Ashland, but voiced concerns that for many on fixed incomes, a small insurance payment“ and new small forgivable loans from the state ”are just a drop in the bucket."

In September 2020, Kali told the committee, a three-bedroom, two-bath manufactured home cost about $100,000.

“Now these same homes are 200 grand, putting them out of the reach of these people, even with public programs,” Kali said.

Kali said the combination of rising construction material costs on traditional stick-built homes, plus supply delays “are leading to a very slow rebuild.” The process, she said, is taking a mental health toll.

“Fire survivors and their allies here are feeling exhausted and worn out from the trauma of the fire, and then the subsequent trauma of living in temporary housing for a year and a half with no end in sight,” Kali said.

She advocated for more mental health support and resources.

“Even with the free counseling sessions we offer through our network, fire survivors at our meetups regularly express ongoing pain and suffering,” Kali said.

Committee Chair Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, told Kali that he took her mental health comments to heart and would reach out to her and Marsh with some possible legislative ideas.

Michael Biggs of Talent acknowledged that he’s luckier than most because he was able to rebuild his home in the span of a year, but that rebuild was filled with delays and a rigid insurance deadline.

“This was absolutely a nightmare,” Biggs said. “We sat there close to two months waiting for permits that were sitting on desks to get done.”

Although the Oregon Legislature extended the rebuild window for fire survivors from one year to two, Biggs said his insurance would cover only one year of supplemental housing. He said it would’ve been difficult for him to pay for a rental and the mortgage on the home that burned.

“We were forced into flailing to get our house rebuilt because we had 365 days of supplementary housing,” Biggs said.

Biggs highlighted the fact that the Rogue Valley has seen more than a month of dry skies in the middle of winter and added, “These fires are going to happen gain.”

“The next people that go through this, I don’t want them to go through what we went through,” Biggs said.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.