Fire survivors face exhaustion five months after homes destroyed
Mail Tribune (Medford, OR)
Feb. 19—From getting a replacement driver's license to finding a new place to live, many survivors of the Almeda and South Obenchain fires said they're exhausted by the many hurdles they're facing to rebuild their lives.
They told their stories via videoconference and phone this week to members of the Oregon Legislature during a virtual public hearing.
The September 2020 fires in Jackson County destroyed 2,500 homes and left more than 4,200 people homeless.
The government-funded cleanup has begun, but swathes of Phoenix and Talent still look like war zones.
"We live in a battlefield, and it's a battle just to get help," said Pam Halbert, who lost a home she shared with her 82-year-old mother in Bear Lake Mobile Estates in Phoenix.
Halbert has been caught in a Catch-22 situation as she struggles to replace her driver's license, Social Security card, birth certificate and other documents. Agencies have been demanding that she show identifying documents in order to replace each item — but her documents burned in the Almeda fire.
Halbert said it took months just to get an appointment with the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles. Many government offices have been shuttered or operating with reduced hours because of COVID-19. She said government websites aren't working for people trying to access help, and no one is fixing them.
Fire survivors faced a roadblock just trying to testify at the virtual public hearing this week. The state sent out the wrong connection information for people who registered to speak to legislators.
With very few available rentals and high housing prices even before the fires, Halbert hasn't been able to find new permanent housing for herself and her mom. They are renting two bedrooms in someone else's home.
She said prices for used mobile homes are skyrocketing.
"Anything that comes up for sale has tripled in price," Halbert said.
She said she and her mother can't afford to take out a mortgage for a mobile home, plus pay the $700-$800 per month that mobile park owners are charging to rent a space.
Like many who testified, James Williams said the emergency alert system failed to warn most people of the oncoming Almeda fire. He had six minutes to get his dogs and flee the Bear Lake Estates manufactured home community.
Williams said he had nothing but the shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops he was wearing. Even a half-hour warning would have allowed him to grab more things, like wedding and baby photos.
With help from his daughter, FEMA and disability payments, he's been able to find a new home.
"I still wake up at night sweating, having nightmares, terrors about being trapped in a house and burning alive. It's hard to get past," Williams said.
Beatrice Gomez said she is struggling to find an affordable place to live after her home in Coleman Creek Estates Mobile Home Park in Phoenix burned down. She said those who lived in local parks are hardworking essential workers who've done a lot for the local economy. The parks also housed people who are retired, disabled, parents and veterans, she said.
When Gomez has to drive past the charred rubble in Phoenix, her 5-year-old daughter asks, "Mom, when are they going to clean up? When are we going to be able to go back home?"
Gomez said fire survivors aren't asking for new dream homes. They just want a decent place to stay, but rent prices are out of reach.
"Is there going to be somewhere where we'll be able to live? I know where we used to live, it wasn't a dream home, but to us it was a beautiful castle," Gomez said of her mobile home.
Kathy Kali was the manager of a local mobile home park that burned in the Almeda fire. She said she and her husband were lucky to have good enough insurance that they can buy a house now.
But she said 35 of the 70 residents of the park where she lived won't be able to move back into the park even after it's cleaned up. Kali said the owner is requiring people to buy new mobile homes in order to come back.
"I was just on the phone today with a resident who was crying because the insurance money she got will not enable her to buy a new home. And she's devastated," Kali said.
Kali said she would like the Oregon Legislature to put pressure on mobile park owners to serve low-income residents.
During the hearing, she and others called for an improvement to the emergency alert system. She said sirens could do a better job of warning people to evacuate.
"If this had happened at night we would have had major loss of life," Kali said.
Rogue Climate, a local organization concerned about climate change, has been helping fire survivors. The group's executive director, Hannah Sohl, said many people can't afford to replace their burned mobile homes.
"For example, one essential worker in our community received $8,000 in insurance for his 1971 trailer and is now faced with needing to replace it for one that will cost well over $50,000," she said.
Sohl called on the state to help fund affordable replacement housing.
Rogue Community College student Jennie Debunce said her mother was offered $4,000 to cover the loss of her manufactured home that burned in the Almeda fire. There are no homes or rentals available that fit her mother's income.
Mark Krause, a professor at Southern Oregon University and father of two small children, said he wants the state to ensure housing is available for all income levels, hold insurance companies accountable, limit predatory practices, mitigate fire risk and improve the emergency notification system — which failed to alert most people of the fast-moving flames.
Krause said he was fortunate to have insurance coverage for his Talent home that burned down. But he said he's spending countless hours navigating the insurance claims process — including making a long list of all the possessions his family lost in the fire, from a jug of bleach to major appliances.
"Our days are spent trying to keep our kids occupied and receiving school during the COVID pandemic," Krause said. "We're working away on our insurance claim. I spent hours on it still today and will be doing so for the foreseeable future. Housing is hard to find. Life is different, and the trauma of losing our home often leaves us tired, anxious and depressed. It's sad that our experience is shared by so many."
Dawn's home, outbuildings and trees were all lost to the South Obenchain fire in northern Jackson County. The Mail Tribune couldn't get the full names of all the people who testified at the hearing since it wasn't done in person.
"Everything from a lifetime is gone. I never thought that at 54-years-old I would be homeless," Dawn said.
With the government-funded cleanup focused on mobile home parks in the Almeda fire area for now, Dawn said people who lost homes to the South Obenchain fire feel overlooked. Many have decided to clean up their property themselves.
Dawn said she had good homeowner's insurance and bought a mobile home. She wants to rebuild her house, but for now is living temporarily at the Jackson County Southern Oregon RV Park in Central Park, which is home to many fire survivors.
"Our biggest holdup right now in starting the process of rebuilding is debris removal. We need that done sooner than later. I know they're working on it, but it can't happen soon enough because the longer we have to sit here and wait, the more money it's costing us — and the longer we're having to sit here taking up a spot that someone else could be using," she said.
Dawn said her insurance isn't covering the full cost of rebuilding, so she's wading through red tape to apply for a Small Business Administration loan. The Federal Emergency Management Agency denied her request for financial help because she has insurance.
Tania Pineda lost her mobile home on the outskirts of Phoenix. FEMA offered to provide temporary housing assistance, but she was told she would have to prove every month that she didn't have a home.
"It's obvious I didn't have a home," she said.
Pineda's employer, Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, stepped in to create a temporary RV park on property it owns for displaced workers. She remains frustrated at the pace of the Almeda fire cleanup.
Jackson County Fire District No. 3 Chief Bob Horton called on legislators to adopt the international wildland-urban interface building code that calls for more fire-resilient construction. He said the state fire marshal's office and the Oregon Department of Forestry, which helps fight wildfires, need more resources, and people should create defensible space around their homes.
"We need to give our firefighters a fighting chance to protect our communities," Horton said.
Phoenix-Talent School District Superintendent Brent Barry said more than 480 families caring for 700 students in the district lost their homes.
Barry said multiple families are crammed into single homes, with others living in RVs, hotels or cars. They've scattered far and wide to find help wherever they can.
"There is no question that having a place to call home remains the biggest need for recovery — and there's no easy solution for housing," he said, noting the Rogue Valley's chronic affordable housing problem that predated the fires.
Barry asked the state to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations for vulnerable fire survivors and to continue financially supporting the district as it works to help students, even though its enrollment is down.
Phoenix High School senior Julio Bryan Flores said he had to pull his father away as flames threatened their home. His dad, a mechanic, didn't want to leave the tools behind that he needed to earn a living.
Flores said the fire and its aftermath made it hard for him to focus on applying for college and scholarships.
"I felt very depressed, very unmotivated, very sad. There was a point where I wanted to drop out of school and get a job just so I could provide for my family. Luckily, it didn't get to that point," he said.
Flores said families need help to get back on their feet.
"We need cleanup and reconstruction — quick," he said.
Jonathan Chavez Baez, who helps Latino students make the jump from high school to Southern Oregon University, said the local area could lose a decade of gains it's made in boosting graduation and college attendance rates for Latino students.
The Almeda fire destroyed the homes of many Latino families.
He urged legislators to continue providing financial support for SOU and Rogue Community College even as they grapple with a drop-off in enrollment during COVID-19 and the fire aftermath.
Like many who testified, Regina Boykins said work needs to be done to prevent the Bear Creek Greenway from becoming overgrown again with blackberry thickets and other flammable vegetation. She and her neighbors — including children — ran away from the Almeda fire as it raged along the greenway. Her Ashland home at Bear Creek Mobile Estates survived.
Ann asked that planning and permit fees be waived for the rebuilding of homes, especially if homeowners are using the same plans. She also wants to see the planning process streamlined. All 47 homes in the Old Bridge Village community where she lived in Talent burned.
Susannah Perillat, lost her Phoenix rental home and massage therapy equipment in the Almeda fire. While juggling SOU classes, she lived in six different homes during a single one-month period after the fire, and is about to lose access to her current housing. Perillat is wondering whether she'll have to move into a hotel.
"In two weeks I've got to find another place," she said.
The state of Oregon is covering hotel stays and RV space rentals for fire survivors regardless of immigration status. Call the state's wildfire housing hotline at 833-669-0554 for housing help.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.
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