MEDFORD, Ore. — Though Jackson County accounts for fully half of the buildings destroyed by fire in Oregon during the fire events of September, officials said on Monday that they have seen alarmingly few applications for assistance from the federal government and the Red Cross.
Jackson County's acting director of Emergency Operations, John Vial, led a press briefing on Monday with the primary purpose of urging those displaced by the Almeda and South Obenchain fires to sign up for help from FEMA and the Red Cross.
"We are very concerned that there are people who suffered a loss, there are people that need help that have not signed up — either because they don't know about it, they don't know how to do it, or they're afraid to do it for some reason . . . and we are concerned about that," Vial said.
Of all the buildings damaged or destroyed in Oregon's recent spate of devastating wildfires, Vial said that Jackson County alone accounts for roughly half. However, only 3,310 applications to FEMA —about 34 percent of applicants — have come from displaced Jackson County residents.
Last Friday, FEMA approved Jackson County for direct housing assistance, saying that it would work with state agencies to provide temporary housing for those displaced by fire while they consider long-term options. The program will only be open to those who register with FEMA.
The Red Cross says that it has helped arrange emergency housing for 898 people displaced by the Almeda and South Obenchain fires to date, despite the fact that nearly 2,500 residential structures were destroyed or severely damaged in the fires.
Meanwhile, Vial says that Monday saw a "soft start" to clean-up operations in Phoenix in Talent. Those operations begin with removal of hazardous waste, which will be taken to a staging area at the Boise Cascade property in Phoenix.
In order for any kind of government-sanctioned debris removal to begin, property owners need to fill out and submit "Right of Entry" (ROE) forms to Jackson County, allowing crews onto the property. Vial said that those forms have been mailed out, with about a third of them already returned. Oregon has set a deadline of October 16 for ROE forms to be returned.
Though hazardous debris removal operations are set to begin imminently, the much larger task of hauling out ash and other debris remains somewhere on the horizon. Vial indicated that the county and state are in negotiations regarding contracts for those efforts — a Herculean task that Vial said could involve filling 200 truckloads each day until it's completed.
It could be several months before the ash and debris removal process begins, Vial predicted.
Hazardous debris removal is being covered by government agencies at no cost to property owners, but general debris removal is somewhat more complex — a process that has concerned some displaced residents.
Vial underlined that the state will only pursue reimbursement from individual insurance policies if they involve a line-item specifically for debris removal. Oregon will not take from any funds earmarked for rebuilding, Vial said. For policies that involve a lump sum, the state won't pursue any reimbursement until after the rebuilding process is complete, seeking any amount left over.
Regardless, Vial insisted, it will be much cheaper for those who have lost their homes or businesses to go through the comprehensive state, county, and federal clean-up process, instead of seeking to do it themselves.