10/3/2020 Wildfire Update: Moving into recovery

The wildfires that coursed through the state in September left disaster in the wake. Now that the smoke has settled, the damage can be assessed. Fires torched one million acres, destroyed 3,124 homes (including 1,069 single families houses, 197 multi-family, and 1,858 manufactured homes), and burned up 1,403 other structures. Nine individuals were killed, and three are still missing. Twenty counties across the state are part of the disaster declaration. 

There’s no getting away from the fact that this was an awful, catastrophic event. But in the shadow of so much loss, the shape of recovery is beginning to take form.

Here is an update on the central issues ahead.
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Clean up.

Officials from the Office of Emergency Management, Department of Environmental Quality, and Department of Transportation have been working with county representatives to craft a comprehensive plan for clean up.

As currently designed, clean up will be conducted in two phases:

1. Household hazardous waste (items like bleach, batteries, propane tanks, paint, pesticides, fertilizer, ammunition, aerosols, or other toxic products) clean up will be managed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and conducted by qualified contractors. FEMA will pick up 75% of the estimated $15.5 million price tag, and the state has committed to the other 25%.

The state is currently working with counties to finalize a Right of Entry form that will need to be signed by homeowners to allow work to take place. Those forms should soon be available on the county’s website: https://jacksoncountyor.org/emergency/News/Wildfires-Smoke In preparation for filling out the forms, property owners should identify their property parcel number from their county tax assessor’s office and collect insurance information.

Once a property owner completes an ROE form with their county, crews will evaluate the property for any overhead hazards (impacted trees) or other physical hazards and conduct air monitoring and visual observations to identify locations of household hazardous waste.

Clean up will begin in Jackson County the week of October 19, and is expected to finish in mid to late December. 

2. Ash and other debris. The second phase of clean up will address ash and other debris – essentially everything on the ground after the household hazardous waste has been removed. This is a complicated and expensive process. Ash is hazardous, and the material on the ground must be processed and property disposed. Current plans call for the state to manage this process and local governments to coordinate implementation. 

Estimated cost for this phase is $622 million. Not surprisingly, the State of Oregon is requesting FEMA to pick up more than the minimum 75% of project costs. Property owners may be asked to contribute that portion of their insurance benefits dedicated to clean up benefits, but will not be required to pay out of pocket for any portion of the costs. 

The good news about clean up is that we are moving to a comprehensive approach that will protect property owners from onerous financial obligations. The bad news is the timeline. As described above, Phase 1 should be completed by the end of the year. Phase 2 can begin immediately after that, but is expected to take 6 to 18 months. Do the math, and it is clear that few if any properties will be ready for new construction until the middle of 2021. 

Many of us are anxious to see new construction on the ground. We want residents to be back in their homes and businesses to be able to open their doors. But doing this right is going to take time, as hard as that is to contemplate.
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FEMA. 

As of today, FEMA has received and is processing 6,835 applications and has already approved $14.5 million in benefits. About $13.5 million has been disbursed to Oregonians. Once your claim is approved, FEMA is quick to get money out the door and into your hands. 

If you have not yet filed an application – please do. Anyone impacted by the wildfires should sign up for assistance through FEMA as soon as possible: https://www.disasterassistance.gov/; 1-800-621-3362; or 1-800-462-7585 TTY

Note that if you are insured you must file a claim with your insurance company before applying to FEMA. 

If you prefer to speak to someone in person, FEMA representatives are now staffing an External Outreach Center at Central High School in Medford. You can visit the center daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. to for in-person help. Masks are required and visitors will receive “no touch” temperature screenings. 

FEMA provides a maximum household benefit of $35,500 for those who are uninsured or underinsured and lost property. This includes repairs, temporary housing, and replacement of household appliances and goods.

There is also a maximum $35,500 benefit for “other needs assistance,” which includes medical and dental expenses, the repair, cleaning or replacement of clothing, household items, and necessary special materials like computers, schoolbooks or supplies. It can go to clean-up items, fuel for primary heat sources, and repairing or replacing vehicles that were damaged in the disaster, and to cover funeral and burial costs.

FEMA Appeals.

Unfortunately, we are already hearing reports from residents who were denied FEMA benefits. This fact sheet from FEMA can help you understand the reasons you may have been turned away: https://www.fema.gov/…/reasons-why-fema-may-have-found-you-…

If you are denied – please do not give up! Many applicants file two or more times before receiving benefits. 

This website at National Disaster Legal Aid offers step-by-step help with writing an appeal letter:  https://www.disasterlegalaid.org/femaappeals/

For assistance in Spanish, you can visit https://lawhelpinteractive.org/…/GenerateInterv…/6100/engine

You can also go to OregonLawHelp.org for assistance or call the Center for Nonprofit Legal Services, which is assisting low-income residents in Jackson County, at 541-779-7291 or 541-779-7000 (for seniors). 
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Temporary housing. 

We know that thousands of displaced residents are living with friends, in hotels, at the EXPO, in cars, or in other temporary quarters. We’ve lost 2,500 homes in a community that already had a significant housing deficit and a 1% vacancy rate. We need help, and soon.

Accordingly, the State Office of Emergency Management has submitted a request to FEMA to implement a Direct Housing Assistance Program for six counties, including Jackson. If approved, this should open the door to placement of FEMA housing units, which could include manufactured homes, trailers, or recreational vehicles, on temporary sites in Talent, Phoenix and adjacent communities. 

But even if approved, we may see a timing lag between FEMA’s sign-off and installation of those units. With winter coming, we will need to make sure that everyone in our community is housed as cold weather sets in. The governor and legislature will be advocating as loudly as possible for immediate FEMA response to ensure that we have housing on the ground as soon as possible. 

FEMA will look at the applications for assistance the agency has received from our region to measure our need and decide whether or not the state will get access to certain kinds of support. That’s another critical reason for all impacted residents to sign up with FEMA.  
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Wildfire Housing Relief Fund

Residents who are not eligible for FEMA and do not have insurance may qualify for grants from the state’s Wildfire Housing Relief Fund. Individuals who are undocumented can apply for this funding. To add your name to the waitlist, please visit:  https://www.oregon.gov/…/program-wildfire-damage-housing-re…
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Wildfire Economic Recovery Council

This week, Governor Kate Brown announced establishment of a Wildfire Economic Recovery Council to evaluate the economic and community needs of Oregonians statewide as a result of the 2020 wildfire season. The council, co-chaired by Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle and State Treasurer Tobias Read, will work to help counties implement economic recovery solutions, bringing together federal, state, and local resources to support communities impacted by wildfires..”

The council will focus on solutions that account for the disproportionate impact the 2020 wildfires have had on communities of color, rural, and low-income Oregonians.

The council will convene next week, and will complete its initial work by December 31. The council’s scope of work will include:
• Assessing the community and economic impacts of the fire and assistance needs; 
• Coordinating community needs and streamlining assistance; 
• Elevating immediate response needs to the Governor’s Disaster Cabinet; 
• Identifying possible budget and legislative needs related to wildfire economic recovery; 
• Working with the Governor’s Regional Solutions staff to coordinate state agencies to help address fire impacts and promote economic stability, public safety and natural resource recovery, including working with local and federal partners; and 
• Apprising the Governor of any further needs identified during the council’s work.

Senator Jeff Golden and I will both serve on the council, along with other legislators, agency directors, and key stakeholders.