When the wind-driven Almeda fire ripped up the Highway 99 corridor on Sept 8, Luke and Nichole Andre were at their jobs in Ashland and unable to return to their mobile home on the outskirts of Phoenix.
“All we had was the clothes on our backs and what I had in my purse,” Nichole Andre said.
On Friday, Sept 18, under police escort, they returned to the 1960s era single-wide they bought in 2007 for $10,500. Little remained. A pile of ash and twisted metal. The burned-out hulk of their 1967 Mustang that was parked in their carport.
“It was nice,” Luke Andre said of their trailer. “It was home. We kept it up real nice and had just done a bunch of work on it this summer.”
Jackson County originally said some 2,700 structures were destroyed in the Almeda fire that broke out just North of Ashland then roared through the cities of Talent and Phoenix and into the outskirts of Medford. It now estimates that 2,357 residential structures were lost, and that three quarters — an estimated 1,748 units — were manufactured homes in a dozen mobile home parks that line Oregon 99 and Interstate 5. Authorities estimate some 3,000 residents were displaced.
Even before the fire, Jackson County was dealing with an acute shortage of affordable housing. And in mere hours, the wildfire consumed a big chunk of the supply in the Rogue Valley, exacerbating the problem. Elected officials and other local leaders are still trying to grasp the extent of the damage and address emergency needs – priorities that distract from beginning a more comprehensive rebuilding strategy. But it’s clear that recovering from this natural disaster will take years, and these Southern Oregon communities may never be the same.
The mobile home parks were home to some of the area’s most vulnerable residents. Senior citizens. Latino families who work at local businesses and farms and attend local schools. Employees of businesses in Ashland who, like the Andres, can’t afford to live there but make it work in low-cost manufactured houses to start building equity.
Fire ravaged mobile home parks in other parts of the state, too, including two parks in Lincoln City and the 28-space Lazy Days Park in Blue River, along the McKenzie River.
But the damage was overwhelming in Jackson County.
Fire experts say there are reasons why the destruction was so thorough in mobile home parks that hold lessons as residents look to rebuild. But in reality, the fire consumed structures of every kind. And for now, the loss simply exacerbates an existing affordable housing crisis.
“We’re dealing with a very fragile population,” said Chuck Carpenter, executive director of Manufactured Housing Communities of Oregon, an advocacy group for mobile home park owners. “It’s very tragic. It’s a huge loss.”
Already a shortage
Jackson County was already suffering from an acute shortage of affordable housing. According to a 2018 housing study, an additional 5,380 affordable housing units were necessary to meet the need there.
And, according to Oregon Housing and Community Services, 56% of Jackson County’s rental households are ‘rent burdened,’ meaning they pay 30% to 35% of their income on rent. Almost one-third are severely rent burdened, meaning rent takes more than 50% of their income – rates that are among the highest in the state.
The Housing Authority of Jackson County operates 1,500 units of affordable housing. Jason Enzy, the agency’s executive director, says occupancy rates have exceeded 98% for the last decade. The agency provides housing vouchers to qualified individuals, but the success rate of individuals looking to use them has steadily declined in recent years.
Enzy said when his agency opens a wait list for its newly constructed 50- and 60-unit apartment buildings, they’re generally filled within two hours. By the end of the day, he added, there’s a two-year wait list to get in.
“We already knew there was a housing shortage, particularly for the workforce families,” he said. “Now we’re looking at a loss of 2,700 housing units in one fell swoop.”
Housing experts say mobile homes make up a big chunk of the state’s “naturally occurring affordable housing,” meaning they are affordable for those of modest means but unsubsidized by any federal program.
Carpenter says most mobile home parks were built 40 to 50 years ago, and due to the stigma traditionally attached to them, many were built on industrial land at the outskirts of towns and cities that have since grown exponentially and absorbed them.
That makes the land beneath them more vulnerable to redevelopment. And replacing the older stock with comparably priced units will be impossible. Even if those units were readily available, the word mobile is also something of a misnomer, as they can’t really be moved.
Carpenter says many residents were originally able to get into their homes for as little as $5,000. Pad rentals range from $350 to $650, making them affordable for low- income residents and seniors on fixed incomes.
Buying a new single wide trailer might cost $25,000, he said, with a double-wide around $40,000 to $50,000.
After the fire, owners are facing a complicated mix of scenarios. While some own their land, those in parks were renting their space from the park owner. And because they own the structure but not the land, they typically can’t get a normal mortgage. Consequently, they often buy through so-called “chattel loans,” a personal property loan that can bear predatory interest rates.
Those loans don’t go away if a home burns down. And while many parks require that owners show proof of insurance annually, that’s not always the case. Many older structures are insured for nowhere near their replacement value.
Carpenter says landlords are required to maintain business insurance, but as far as the residents go, “that’s always been a controversy.”
“We’ve always felt residents should be required to have homeowner’s insurance,” he said. “Some communities have agreements that require it, but a lot of these folks say they can’t afford it. It’s not required under statute, and a high percentage of these folks probably didn’t have it.”
Officials have also expressed concern that financially vulnerable residents who do have insurance may be pressed to take early offers without seeing the full settlement evaluation and getting comparable value information.
Federal disaster benefits will be available for those who lost property and are uninsured or underinsured. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides a maximum household benefit of $35,000, which can go to cover repairs, temporary housing and replacing household appliances and goods. There is also a maximum $35,500 benefit for “other needs assistance,” including things like medical expenses, vehicle and clothing replacement, computers, schoolbooks or supplies.
Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Southern Oregon, said last week that she’s eager to see FEMA on the ground. Her district encompasses Talent and Phoenix, and because mobile home parks make up such an important part of the region’s housing – the county has 104 — she has been active in policy debates at the legislature.
“They were the refuge of a lot of people who don’t have a lot of money, she said. “We had an affordable housing crisis before this and now we have a lot more people who are living on the street or in temporary conditions.”
The supply and demand problem exacerbated by the fire will affect everyone in the region, Enzy said, with rental and purchase prices rising across the board. With the demand to replace housing and commercial centers lost in the fire, he’s also concerned the region will see a shortage of qualified contractors and price increases in building materials.
Already, building material costs had been on the rise during the pandemic. Now that trend will be reinforced by high demand from communities up and down the West Coast looking to rebuild after fires.
“That will make things even worse,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, drove the point home during a recent news conference, noting that just 400 housing units were built in Jackson County altogether in 2018. And, that the county just lost 2,700 units.
“You think about trying to rebuild,” he said. “It’s going to take a while right now with COVID and everything else that is going on.
Another complicating factor: It’s unclear whether parks created decades ago can be rebuilt with the same density under new zoning and building codes. Or if they can be built at all.
Walden noted at his recent news conference that some of the destroyed mobile home parks in the county are situated in newly zoned floodplains.
“While they were grandfathered before,” he explained, “there is some discussion that many of those units will not be able to be replaced now that they have been destroyed.”
Before anything can be built, there will need to be a massive cleanup. Authorities are warning residents against salvaging belongings from their homes. Homes may have toxic chemicals such as pesticides, motor oil and paint, and many older homes contain asbestos. Standard face masks don’t filter out fine airborne ash, dust and asbestos fibers.
The Almeda fire was not a wildfire, per se. It didn’t start in the woods or the so-called wildland urban interface, where policy makers have focused much of their forestry and defensible space work.
Experts call it an urban conflagration, one that burned through dry grasslands, riparian areas with dense fuel loads from non-native blackberries, and of course, in urban areas with densely packed residences.
Jack Cohen, a researcher at the U.S. Forest Servicer’s Missoula Fire Science Laboratory, says that while the result was tragic, it’s no surprise mobile homes burned with such intensity.
Looking at pictures of the destruction in Phoenix and Talent, he sees an urban conflagration where fine fuels driven by the wind touched down in one community after another, igniting one structure and then chewing through everything downwind.
“Look at the debris in the aftermath,” he said. “It’s overlapping, a continuous line all the way from one end to another,” Cohen said. “We can see that once a mobile home starts burning and it’s upwind, the whole thing is going to get taken out.”
Though many mobile homes are clad in metal or concrete siding, he says they often have wooden windows, wooden decks, wooden fencing, and wooden skirting that can easily ignite. Mobile homes are often set up on piers, where air and fire can move below the structure, igniting any material stored beneath and penetrating through the floor. Thin walls and ceilings mean the fire can move rapidly through the interior.
Moreover, given the density of the park layouts, fires can quickly jump from one structure to another, creating an intense blaze that firefighters have little hope of stopping.
“There’s no way we can call this a natural disaster,” Cohen said. “It’s a human disaster associated with a natural disturbance.”
Carpenter, the advocate for mobile home park owners, says it’s unfair to call the mobile home parks fire traps. The state hasn’t lost one to a fire in more than two decades. And the Almeda fire wasn’t choosy, he says, burning structures of all kinds.
“Nothing withstood this, he said. “Everything went. And if anything was left standing it was by the grace of god. The fact that no one died is remarkable. That’s because these are communities and people look out for each other.”
Where did people go
Rogue Valley’s elected leaders and planners are beginning to talk about how to rebuild and retain the residents who lost their homes.
Josh LeBombard, Southern Oregon Regional Representative for the Department of Land Conservation and Development, says he’s working to create interim housing that bridges the gap between emergency shelters and when more permanent structures will be built.
He says it’s still unclear whether FEMA will provide trailers, recreational vehicles or other housing units for transitional housing, or whether the assistance will only be monetary. In the meantime, he’s taking an inventory of available land with a priority for those in or near the communities of Talent and Phoenix with access to schools, transportation and other services.
Oregon officials have created a disaster housing task force and asked state agencies to provide plans to help lawmakers create legislative solutions.
“We still haven’t put the pieces together yet as far as what federal money will be available,” LeBombard said. “We’re hoping at the end of the day we’ll be able to rely on FEMA for a substantive amount for actual structures, but we’re not holding our breath for that.”
In the short term, the Jackson County Expo in Medford functions as the primary evacuation site for services and nighttime shelter, along with local hotels.
“The immediate response is that people have dispersed,” said Marsh, the local state representative whose district encompasses the area burned by the Almeda fire. “I hope people have landed with family and friends and are in a stable situation. But we don’t really know. The evacuation center has about 200 people, so not a whole lot of people are there.”
Anecdotally, she’s heard the Latinx population has evacuated to White City, Eagle Point and other nearby towns where they have extended family. Those communities were already disproportionately affected by COVID-19, have distrust and anxiety when it comes to government and may not feel comfortable in emergency housing.
She said local elected leaders must work to keep people connected to the community as they rebuild. Historically there’s been a stigma with manufactured homes, but she says that’s not the case in the Rogue Valley.”
“Phoenix and Talent want those people back,” she said. “They’re a significant part of the community. They’re key to our schools. They work in local businesses. They own some of the small businesses. It’s a very productive part of our community.”
The Andres, while devastated by the loss of their home, still count themselves among the fortunate.
They salvaged what they could. A brand new pan that had been sitting in the kitchen sink. A ceramic lady bug. A cracked salt shaker in the form of a Los Angeles Dodgers bear. But Luke’s wallet, left behind as he rushed out the door on the day of the fire, was incinerated. And there was no sign of their cat, DC, presumed dead in the fire.
“He was my mom’s cat and when she passed in 2012, we adopted him,” Luke said. “It was like having a piece of her still with us.”
But they had insurance. Not enough to make them whole, but it will help. They are staying with family in Central Point. They still have their jobs — Luke at a fulfillment warehouse in Ashland and Nichole as a record keeper at the hospital.
They signed up for FEMA relief and picked up free food, clothing, towels and toiletries at the Expo relief center. While there, they sat beside a couple with six kids who had no idea where to go.
“It’s just still unbelievable,” said Nichole Andre. “You go through your life around your house and your family and neighbors, and now it’s all just gone…We have a lot of different resources at the moment, but after a few months, I don’t know how it’s all going to work out.”
— Ted Sickinger; [email protected]; 503-221—8505; @tedsickinger
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