3 years later: Rebuilding after the Almeda Fire

JACKSON COUNTY, Ore. – It’s a day that changed the Rogue Valley forever.

“We’ll be dealing with the trauma of that for years to come,” Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood said.

 “Three years is a long time and three years is yesterday,” Jackson County Long-term Recovery Group executive director Caryn Wheeler Clay said. “It is hard to wrap our heads around what that feels like because from moment to moment it changes, particularly on anniversaries.”

On September 8, 2020 the Almeda Fire devastated communities in Ashland, Talent, and Phoenix.

Three years later, progress continues to be made.

But for those wanting to move back to the ‘Royal Oaks’ community in Phoenix they’re still waiting.

“You guys keep wasting tax dollar money like it’s going out of style, it’s not even your money,” one upset resident said.

The affordable housing development on south Pacific Highway is expected to have 140 modular units. 

However, the homes, manufactured in Idaho, and cost a total of $26 million dollars, were deemed unsafe by ‘Oregon Housing and Community Services’.

When they arrived in Oregon, there were multiple issues, including cracking in the walls and water intrusion.

“It’s horrible, it has been almost three years since we had that fire course through the community,” Ashland representative Pam Marsh said. “This was supposed to be the first project that we would have on the ground for people to actually have homes in. I thought it would be here last year, now it’s this year, it’s going to be next year, so the delay is incomprehensible.”

Governor Tina Kotek has also voiced her frustration about the delay saying she thinks the state will have to pursue legal action against the Idaho vendor.

However, United Way of Jackson County, who’s played a critical role in recovery from the fire, said there’s plenty to be proud of.

Everson: “What we have to remember for September 8 this year, is we’ve come a long way as a community,” executive director and CEO Dee Anne Everson said. “Most people who had single family homes have rebuild and moved back in.”

The city of Phoenix is one of those examples.

“We’ve risen through the ashes, I think as we set our goals for is how do we best get people back into their homes and back into phoenix and I think we’ve shown some real steady progress,” Phoenix city manager Eric Swanson said.

The city said out of the 561 homes destroyed in the fire, 51% have been rebuilt and are occupied.

Lagging behind are mobile homes, which make up half of the total homes lost.

Only 18%  of those homes have been rebuilt and are occupied.

But bringing those mobile homes back has not been easy.

Slaughter: “It’s just a matter of how quickly you can take in infrastructure and homes into a single park with 210 units lost,” Phoenix community economic and development director Joe Slaughter said. “So overall 50 percent but I think we’re looking at near 100% of what we expect to see rebuilt for both single family and multi-family homes.”

In Talent, Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood said around 72% of homes have been rebuilt fully or there are permits to re-build.

For commercial buildings, it’s about 50%.

Mayor Ayers-Flood said they’re focused on rebuilding their businesses and affordable housing.

“Where we’re still lacking is in that affordable housing stock,” she said. “Those folks that were less insured and trying to find their way back is what we’re really focused on.”

Talent recently updated their city code to allow for more affordable housing.

But there are still Almeda Fire survivors in what local leaders call ‘Transitional Housing’.

According to Mayor Ayers-Flood, 53 trailers donated by the state for those without a home are still being used.

“It’s completely full and there’s still demand,” she said. “They’re still hotel rooms that are still full in the Medford area so until we get folks resettled, back into their own communities, yeah we’re not recovered for sure.”

The Jackson County Community Long-Term Recovery Group was created shortly after the Almeda and South Obenchain fires. 

Their goal is to support partners who are working on the ground to identify gaps and barriers to recovery.

Right now, the group said housing is still the biggest need.

“It is housing,” Wheeler Clay said. “It is housing. It is housing. And I hear from survivors, more often than you would think, I don’t have time to deal with my feelings, I just need to get rehoused and so we have to be attentive to both of those.”

ACCESS is helping those who need to be re-housed through its ‘Center for Community Resilience’ program.

It said 433 households have been permanently rehoused through rentals, with an additional 210 households still in transition. 

The non-profit has also helped 85 households achieve homeownership again, with 185 households still waiting.

Although progress has been made, there plenty more to come.

“A lot, but not enough,” Wheeler Clay said. “We have accomplished over these three years but it’s still so much work ahead of us.”

 “I‘d like to say we’ve made 80% and the 80/20 rule applies,” Everson said. “Because the 20% is going to be hardest. We’re still deeply in it and we’re a great community. Still people are at the table, still people are working hard, still people are trying to ensure that we get everyone resettled.”

The City of Phoenix is inviting the community out to their ‘Phoenix Rising’ event next Saturday, September 16.

It will showcase the rebuild effort, three years later.

The event is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Phoenix Elementary School.

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NBC5 News reporter Zachary Larsen grew up in Surprise, Arizona. He graduated from Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. At ASU, Zack interned at Arizona Sports 98.7FM and Softball America. During his Junior year, Zack joined the ASU Sports Bureau. He covered the Fiesta Bowl, the Phoenix Open and major basketball tournaments. Zack enjoys working out, creative writing, music, and rooting for his ASU Sun Devils.
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