"From Assets to Ashes: Wildfire Victims Scramble for Help"
The following are twelve pieces filed by KLCC's Brian Bull between mid-September 2020 and mid-July 2021. They reflect various stages of loss, recovery, and rebuilding for Oregonians who lost their homes during what's been deemed the worst wildfire season in the state's recorded history. There were many other reports dealing with the catastrophe, but these ones focused the most on personal losses of assets and finances, as well as resources available to those most afflicted by the fires.
Evacuation levels are being downgraded for some areas around the Holiday Farm Fire that’s burned over 166,000 acres and destroyed more than 300 structures. As can be expected, evacuees are more than ready to come home.
Crews are slowly containing the fire, which drove hundreds of people out of Vida, Blue River, and other towns last week.
“It came within a mile and a half of my home, so far it’s still standing,” recalled LeighAnn Blodgett, from the Upper Mohawk Valley.
I asked what she was able to leave with.
"Everything that was worth anything, even my lawn mower!” she laughed.
“My mom had recently had hip replacement surgery, and I’m her caregiver," said Shelby Todd of Marcola. "So Tuesday afternoon we left, and it was chaotic getting out even at Level 2, there were cars backed up on Marcola Road for miles.”
Both women are staying at the Graduate Hotel-Eugene for free, thanks to the Red Cross. Many hotels are near capacity with evacuees, who are anxious to get back and pick up the pieces. Forestry officials warn damage to the area poses short and long-term hazards.
Resources and Information:
The regional Red Cross office can be contacted at (503)284-1234, or at 313 North Vancouver Avenue, Portland OR 97227.
For assistance with disaster response, administrators ask people to please call (888) 680-1455.
Note: If you're an Oregon resident who's dealing with a wildfire evacuation or related issues - or work with such invididuals - visit KLCC's contact page to share your situation with our news department.
Many people evacuated from areas near the massive Holiday Farm Fire are returning home. But locals from one of the most ravaged communities are facing severe hardships.
The small rural town of Blue River was mostly annihilated when the fire blazed through late Labor Day.
Tim Laue of the McKenzie Community Development Corporation is working with several agencies to coordinate shelters up and down the river, and with utilities to get water and power restored.
Laue said the challenges are far from over.
“We’re going to have issues with mud slides, falling trees all winter long,” he told KLCC. “We have about 30 generators that we are distributing to people who are sheltered in place on the basis of need and highest priority.”
And with up to 100 homes in the town destroyed, water connections are non-existent.
“Fire closed down the well house and damaged – and actually put of commission - the pumps to the supply lines. It drained both of the tanks we have in the area. An 85,000 gallon tank, and a 45,000 gallon tank.”
Laue says water officials are working with the neighboring Rainbow Water District, as well as state water utilities, to figure out next steps. Replacement motors for pumps are being worked out, as well as creating an access line to the school in the next few days.
“So that there’s water to the school, in the case the fire comes back. And then work from there to add additional potable water.”
Laue says power is another priority, but he doesn’t know the timeline yet. He says officials are working 24-7 to help people out.
“We’ve identified lodges, institutions, and facilities upriver from Blue River up to McKenzie Bridge that we’re trying to get authorized for vouchers from FEMA, as well. We’re also working on spots for transitional shelters where people if they have access to trailers, where we can provide them with transitional shelter that’ll last awhile.”
Laue said they’re working with Lane County (Disaster Assistance), EWEB, and Lane Electric Co-Op to coordinate responses from state and federal agencies. He figures recovery for Blue River will take 18 months.
Rebuilding will be five years.
Laue himself has lost two residences in the fire.
Resources and Information:
If you're a resident of Blue River, Vida, Leaburg, Rainbow, Walterville, Cedar Flat, Nimrod, Finn Rock, or McKenzie Bridge, learn more about the McKenzie Recovery effort here.
As homeowners across Oregon sift through the ashes and debris, their rate of recovery from this year’s wildfires will be uneven, due to several factors.
The Almeda Fire hit suburban areas, which are not commonly seen as vulnerable to wildfires. Many homeowners lacked insurance for such disasters. Chris Dunn is an Oregon State University researcher whose brother lost his home.
“They’re estimating cleanup costs per parcel to be $75,000 in the city of Talent. And that’s cost prohibitive, I think his insurance will cover $30,000. And so any addition above that starts to really eat into their ability to even rebuild.”
Another OSU wildfire expert, Erika Fischer, said even if an affected homeowner qualifies for help, bureaucracy will affect their outcome.
“There’s a delay when FEMA money comes in and when Congress decides to send out money to these communities.
"So those individuals that are reliant on that money and are underinsured or don’t have insurance are significantly behind in their recovery curve.”
Additionally, homeowners that are wealthier are more apt to have insurance and other resources available than those from more impoverished backgrounds.
One development that could help is a deal worked out among state and federal agencies, to get EPA crews in to clean up destroyed homesteads in eight Oregon counties for free.
Both Dunn and Fischer made their remarks during a recent OSU media panel with wildfire experts.
If you're an Oregon resident contending with wildfire recovery and rebuilding issues - or work with such invididuals - visit KLCC's contact page to share your situation with our news department.
Three relief centers are now up and running along the McKenzie River Corridor. They’re to help people affected by the Holiday Farm Fire for at least several months.
Late Labor Day, people fled their homes as fast-moving flames roared through their communities. Now many are back, picking through the remnants of their homes, businesses, and towns.
Tim Laue is with the McKenzie Community Development Corporation, which is helping establish the relief centers. Currently there are ones in Blue River, Vida, and McKenzie River. He says cash is one way to help support their efforts.
“We can use it to dedicate to communities and particular projects, but we also have to pay people who have been working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week," Laue told KLCC.
"The economy up there is gone, and people need to be employed, and being employed helping their neighborhoods recover is very important."
Laue added that his organization is a 501 (c)(3) (i.e. non-profit) and tax-deductible donations can be made to McKenzieCommunity.org.
The coming winter rains are expected to inflict their own hazards across the area. This includes rockslides, mudslides, and collapsing trees affected by the fires.
Alice Bonasio of the McKenzie Community Development Corporation added that currently the Rainbow center is serving over 70 people per day.. The Blue River one is averaging over 60, with demand increasing as more people come back to their properties.
She also said there are plans to open another relief center in Vida (most likely at the Windermere office next to the market) and work going on "to build on our resilience for winter, placing supplies strategically in various places along the 126 so that in case there are mudslides, etc and supply trucks cannot get through to certain locations, they will not be cut off from essentials."
Starting October 12th, Bonasio said the centers will also experiment with alternating their opening days. The Blue River Center will be closed Mondays/Tuesdays and the Rainbow UMCC one on Wednesdays and Thursdays. "The highest demand at the moment is over the weekend, so both centers will continue to be open on Fridays/Saturdays/Sundays," she said.
Clean-up crews with the EPA continue to remove hazardous waste from wildfire-stricken areas. KLCC’s Brian Bull reports from Blue River, which was devastated by the Holiday Farm Fire in September.
A group of men don white hazmat suits before venturing into the foundations of what used to be a home. Many buildings in this small town have been reduced to their foundations, with the occasional chimney or porch steps indicating a house once stood there.
Randy Nattis of the U.S. EPA says 12 teams have worked in eight Oregon counties affected by wildfires, removing all types of hazards.
“Any sort of petroleum product, acids, bases, any sort of ammunition that we might find that’s still active. So far we’ve cleared up to 500 properties throughout the entire response area, and over 45-50 properties on the McKenzie River.”
The assessment and removal of contaminants is free for affected residents. They need only work through their local county to grant right of entry to EPA crews.
Resources and Information:
Oregon property owners ready to begin rebuilding and recovering from devastating wildfires now have a dedicated phone number (541)225-5549 to ask questions about EPA’s removal of household hazardous waste at their property or provide additional details about their property that will help speed the removal work. The hotline offers service in both English and Spanish.
The removal of household hazardous waste is required before the property can be cleared of ash and debris. Property owners who have not already signed and completed a “Right of Entry” (ROE) form with their county are strongly encouraged to do so to help speed cleanup operations in their area. See: Oregon’s Wildfire Cleanup website for more information on the needed forms.
Note: The EPA never asks for personal financial information like Social Security numbers or bank account numbers, and is only contacting people regarding household hazardous waste removal. If property owners haven’t already visited Oregon’s Wildfire Resources for Home and Business Owners, they should do so soon.