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‘The stars finally aligned’

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Almeda fire survivor Lisa Byrne works on connecting piping from her trailer to a friend’s residence in Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Almeda fire survivor Lisa Byrne communicates from the doorway of her trailer parked at a friend’s residence in Medford.

Former Phoenix resident Lisa Byrne, one of hundreds of Almeda fire survivors still trying to get their lives back on track, caught a long-awaited break recently when United Way of Jackson County stepped in to help her purchase an RV, where she hopes to slowly reclaim her peace and finally begin to heal.

A local creative who is medically retired and battles with a slew of health conditions, Byrne guestimates that she’s stayed in some 36 different places in the year-and-a-half since the Almeda fire, which destroyed more than 2,600 homes, tore through portions of Phoenix and Talent, and reduced to ashes her home of more than a decade.

She’s slept in cars, tents, under the stars along the river and on friends’ couches while making what she says were thousands of phone calls and spending hundreds of hours filling out paperwork.

Before the fire, Byrne shared a house with roommates and had been working to manage her health woes and live a peaceful existence. Since the fire, a lack of permanent housing has derailed her life almost entirely.

“Since the fire, I’ve moved probably three dozen or more times. My stable housing was paramount to my functioning — it fostered my independence and a good quality of life,” said Byrne.

“It has been a very long 15 months — and almost keeling over in the process — of trying to get my life back. This past year and a half almost killed me and has been the most horrific effing nightmare I’ve ever lived through,” Byrne said.

“It feels like there is a lot of red tape for people who are still in need of help, but there is still help out there if you can put in the time. It’s like a full-time job trying to recover from something you didn’t even cause to happen.”

For her part, Byrne required a living space free of harsh smells and mold and without the stress of frequent moves. Provided a FEMA trailer at one point after the fire, she said mold issues and other problems with the trailer exacerbated her health conditions.

“I felt like once I could figure out housing, I could focus on getting healthy. You don’t think about the simple things when you’re not worried about where you’ll live,” she added.

“At one point, I had one pair of socks and I wore them for a month-and-a-half. No makeup. No regular showers or regular changes of clothes. It’s been like a weird alternative life,” she said. “For me, and I think for most people, stable housing was connected to everything else from my physical health — rest and routine — to financially being able to budget to just live.”

When Byrne found the RV she would eventually purchase with help from United Way, it felt like “the stars finally aligned.” Almost as soon as she found the RV — a clean model that suits her needs perfectly — she learned of a property owner in Medford who had set up an area of their land with RV connections so that a fire survivor could someday live there.

“It’s like the picture of exactly, if I could have picked, what I was looking for. It’s exactly what I feel I needed to create some sense of normality after all I’ve been through,” Byrne said.

DeeAnne Everson, executive director of United Way, said she was excited to see Byrne find much-needed housing. Everson said it is heart-warming to see survivors resettle since Almeda, but also frustrating for it to sometimes take so long.

Her own agency, she noted, has provided direct aid to 886 people and has invested over $2.6 million in recovery efforts.

Everson applauded community efforts, from hotels being converted to apartments to agencies rebuilding homes.

“We are working hard, but we still, as a community, have a long way to go and a lot of people still in need of our help,” she added.

“We got donations from all 50 states within days of the fire, and we’re using those dollars every day to help people to resettle,” Everson said. “How rare is it to hear of people running from flames and to realize that, in our community, thousands of people ran from flames?”

Caryn Wheeler-Clay, executive director of the Jackson County Community Long-Term Recovery Group, urged fire survivors who might not be receiving help to get signed up. Wheeler-Clay confirmed some 225 individuals or families assigned to case managers across three agencies; ODHS, Catholic Charities and Rogue Community Health.

Since January, the Jackson County Community Long-Term Recovery Group and its funding partners have provided over $300,000 to survivors, providing for everything from home-purchase assistance or renovation to moving and siting mobile homes, major appliance purchases, HVAC and septic systems.

“The challenge is that not everyone has reached out for disaster help. There is this sense that people have more need than I do, so I don’t feel right asking for help, too,” she said.

“People don’t want to get in the way of other people, but on the flip side people are frustrated they’re not getting the support they need. We have help, and our caseworker count is based on the amount of help still needed. We need people to sign up for the help they need.”

Wheeler-Clay said her agency had helped with needs both large and small, from housing to rallying agency staff to build furniture for fire survivors moving into new housing.

While small victories, Everson noted, are sometimes a double-edge sword for agencies trying to do so much, she’s grateful for each one.

“On my best day and my worst day, I think the same thing, that we’re going to solve this one person at a time,” she said.

“On a good day, it’s like, ‘Wow, we did it for one person today.’ And on my worst day, ‘I think, ‘Oh, my god, we can’t do this one person at a time.’”

For more information

ACCESS and disaster case managers are available to help navigate recovery. If you are unsure whether you have a DCM or cannot remember who your DCM is, call the Oregon Disaster Case Management Hotline at 833-699-0554 to get set up with a disaster case manager to help navigate your recovery.

ACCESS is available to help navigate housing options for fire survivors: 541-414-0318 or email ccr@accesshelps.org.

Help is also available through the United Way of Jackson County, unitedwayofjacksoncounty.org, and the Jackson County Community Long-Term Recovery Group, jccltrg.org

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.