After wildfire ravaged areas of the Santiam Canyon four weeks ago, the cities of Lyons, Mill City and Detroit have begun to reopen, and residents have returned to see their damaged homes.
Many of the more than 500 people whose homes were burned down in the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires want to know when they can remove the debris and rebuild. But it could take years before some residents will be able to return for good.
This week, Malibu, California city manager Reva Feldman gave a presentation to elected officials from Marion and Linn counties on the recovery efforts undertaken by the city following the 2018 Woolsey Fire that destroyed nearly 500 houses.
Nearly two years later, 11 houses have been rebuilt and have residents living in them.
“I think the biggest takeaway for me is just to set our expectations that this is going to be a long process,” Marion County Commissioner Colm Willis said.
“She said that cleanup took them between three to nine months, so I think that’s what we have to anticipate. I think that’s really important, setting expectations for us and for our citizens.”
The Woolsey Fire in November 2018 destroyed about 1,600 homes in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, including 480 homes in Malibu. It caused $6 billion in property damage.
Feldman said about 20 homes that were rebuilt following the fires are awaiting final inspections, 100 are in the planning process and 150 are under construction.
“There’s a whole slew of people I haven’t heard from,” she said.
Some residents are already cleaning
Detroit Mayor Jim Trett said some residents of his city are already clearing out the debris from their homes, even though there is no approved disposal site and permits are required in many situations to deal with hazardous materials.
“We’ve been telling people, this isn’t going to be a year from now we’re home. It’s going to be years,” he said. “I think people are understanding that, but I still don’t think that sets in.”
There are thousands of pounds of debris that need to be removed, including much in environmentally sensitive areas along the North Santiam River watershed.
The counties have partnered with the state to provide cleanup of properties at no charge to homeowners, though insurance companies or FEMA will foot the bills.
Home owners must complete an upcoming ‘Right of Entry’ form by Oct. 16 to participate.
The first step in the cleaning process will include assessing and removing hazardous waste, and in the second ash and debris will be removed.
Malibu took a similar tact, allowing homeowners to opt in or out of letting the state’s contractor excavate and remove the debris, with them billing the homeowner’s insurance for the service.
“We also had a lot of residents who took the opt-out option and got scammed by haulers and unscrupulous people,” Feldman said.
A city cash flow problem
An estimated 250 of 400 buildings in Detroit were destroyed by fire, including its city hall.
Trett said Sweet Home has offered to donate a modular city hall annex with some office furniture in it and a person from Sweet Home has offered to move it to Detroit for free.
But the city is going to have a cash flow problem for a long time.
“All our money comes from property taxes and water bills,” Trett said. “How long is the water plant down so we can’t bill for that? We have a loan payment coming up that’s big that we won’t be able to make.
“Our property tax base, they’re going to be paying taxes on a vacant lot. So, all of a sudden that money goes away. We just don’t know what that’s going to look like yet.”
Waiting for the next step
Estimates are over 4,000 buildings in Oregon have been destroyed by the wildfires, many of them homes.
Two houses on Ron Carmickle’s three acres in Gates — a shop and a collection of classic cars — were wiped out by the fire.
“I lost absolutely everything. Absolutely everything,” Carmickle said.
Carmickle figures the wildfires caused between $500,000 and $750,000 worth of damage to his home and property, but he doesn’t have insurance.
He has applied for assistance from FEMA, but says he has already run into problems, including proving he owned the cars as the titles burned up in the fire.
Carmickle is living in his motorhome in which he fled the fires on his son’s property in Mill City.
“A lot of unanswered questions at this point and just trying to exist is the next portion of it,” he said. “I’m in a 27-foot motorhome that has a heater that don’t work and a water heater that don’t work. It’s like, and winter’s coming on. It’s not even, at this point, I can’t even move it over to the property to stay there.”
A former contractor, he would like to go back and start clearing the property of debris and start figuring out what he will rebuild and what he won’t.
But he knows that can’t happen soon.
“I’m realistic about that,” Carmickle said.
Speeding up the rebuilding process
Marion County Commissioner Sam Brentano asked what financial relief Malibu offered to speed the rebuilding process.
Feldman said Malibu’s city council waved all permitting and planning fees to do with rebuilding, which ended up costing the city $5 million.
“I would be very mindful of that and what I have told my council numerous times,” Fedlman said. “You waved it for this disaster. If there’s another fire tomorrow, those residents are going to expect that same treatment, and then what do you do?
“Don’t set yourself up for failure there. Those rebuilding permit fees are paid for by insurance. Be careful there.”
Since the Woolsey Fire, Malibu has experienced flooding and debris flows in the following years.
With the significant amount of vegetation burned by the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires, the Santiam Canyon could experience that for years until the plants grow again.
“You clean it up on Monday and then you clean it up on Tuesday and you clean it up on Wednesday. You just keep cleaning this mud and it just keeps coming and you’re looking at that for up to five years after a severe burn, and these aren’t things that FEMA is paying for,” Feldman said.
“If you think you’re tired now, you’re going to get more tired when it starts raining.”
The 2018 Camp Fire in California burned 153,000 acres, destroyed 18,808 buildings including approximately 95% of the buildings in Paradise, killed 85 people and was the cause of $16.6 billion in damage.
The first building permit in Paradise was issued five months after the fire and the first certificate of occupancy was issued in July 2019.
Though it will be a long time until many who had their homes destroyed by fire can rebuild and return home, Willis said Marion County has already received permit applications.
“I’m going to, and I know the other commissioners are going to, move heaven and Earth to do everything we can to get people to be able to rebuild as quickly as possible,” Willis said. “We’re just going to fight tooth and nail to get people back into their homes.”