Efforts underway to assist wildfire survivors who lost homes in 2020, still waiting to rebuild

MILL CITY, Ore. (KGW) — Building new housing for wildfire survivors has been a slow and frustrating process for many people who are trying to move forward from the devastating Labor Day wildfires of 2020. The fires burned a million acres and more than 4,000 homes across Oregon.

A number of wildfire survivors are now dealing with red tape and bureaucratic delays, keeping the process moving at a snail’s pace. Now, with inflation, building costs have shot up making the process even slower.

It’s been nearly two years since Lucretia Benolken lived on her property along the North Fork River in the Santiam Canyon. She remembers her neighbors coming to her door, waking her up, and telling her she had to leave.

“They came in and said you have five minutes to get ready. We’re leaving. The fire’s on its way here,” recalled Benolken.

Days later, she found out she had lost everything from her home, to her woodworking shop and her car.

“It was pretty scary. Realizing that I had nothing left but the clothes on my back and my medicine. I had that with me, and that was it,” Benolken said.

Benolken, who is 89, is now living in Arizona at her daughter’s second home as she waits for her new home to be rebuilt. She said she’s fortunate her son is her contractor, but the process is taking a while.

“Insurance doesn’t cover everything and all the materials have gone sky high as far as the price,” she said.

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Benolken is one of the many people who are still displaced and waiting for a home.

“Given that we were already in a housing crisis, and what has happened with construction cost escalation, that really drove us to spending every dollar that we that we could justify on housing,” said Alex Campbell, the external affairs officer for the disaster recovery and resilience section of Oregon Housing and Community Services.

Oregon Housing and Community Services is the state agency responsible for distributing $422 million of wildfire disaster recovery money from the federal government. The OHCS program doing that is called ReOregon.

“We dedicated over $300 million of that $422 [million] to housing programs. The majority of that for folks who lost a home,” Campbell said.

He said the idea is to provide affordable housing to people in the form of home ownership for both prior homeowners and those who rented before and want to buy. Campbell anticipates wildfire survivors will be able to apply late this year or early next year.

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