Wildfire survivors still waiting to rebuild

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Inflation and bureaucratic red tape are holding back wildfire survivors still waiting to rebuild their homes lost in the 2020 Labor Day wildfires.

MILL CITY, Oregon – Building new homes for wildfire survivors has been a slow and frustrating process for many people trying to get out of 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 facing red tape and bureaucratic delays, pushing the process along at a snail’s pace. Now, with inflation, construction costs have skyrocketed, further slowing down the process.

Lucretia Benolken has lived on her property along the North Fork River in Santiam Canyon for nearly two years. She remembers her neighbors coming to her door, waking her up and telling her she had to go.

“They came in and said you had five minutes to get ready. Had left. The fire is on the way here,” recalls Benolken.

A few days later, she discovered that she had lost everything, from her house to her carpentry shop and her car.

“It was pretty scary. Realizing I only had the clothes on my back and my medication. I had that with me, and that was it,” Benolken said.

Benolken, who is 89, now lives in Arizona at her daughter’s second home while she waits for her new home to be rebuilt. She said she was lucky her son was her contractor, but the process takes time.

“Insurance doesn’t cover everything, and all materials have skyrocketed in price,” she said.

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Benolken is one of many people who are still displaced and waiting for housing.

“Given that we were already in a housing crisis and what happened with escalating construction costs, it really pushed us to spend every dollar we could justify on housing,” said Alex Campbell, external affairs manager 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 in wildfire recovery funds from the federal government. The OHCS program that does this is called ReOregon.

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

He said the idea is to provide affordable housing to people in the form of home ownership, both for former owners and for those who have previously rented and wish to buy. Campbell expects wildfire survivors to be able to apply late this year or early next year.

According to Campbell, the new homes likely won’t be available until late next summer.

In the McKenzie River Valley where the Holiday Farm Fire burned, Jamee Savidge said she believes housing is the community’s biggest problem.

Savidge works for Cascade Relief Team, a non-profit organization that helps fight wildfires.

“My main concern is the 150 families living on their property in an RV, some with two, three, four or five children trying to figure out what their rebuilding will look like and how they’re going to do that,” Savidge said.

She said the $422 million in federal grants will primarily help those with the least resources, which is needed, but she’s also worried about anyone who is underinsured.

“It’s the people who are in the middle, who [had] a good job and you know, a solid income and a strong credit history. These are the people who are having the hardest time right now,” Savidge said.

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Campbell said Oregon Community Housing and Services is required by the federal government to spend 70% of the total grant to benefit “low- and middle-income people.”

In Marion County, Commissioner Danielle Bethell said about 300 families still have no homes. She says that although there are big plans to build more rental units, but due to inflation and rising costs, things are moving slowly.

“The county is still working on two projects, temporary housing projects, which are tiny homes, 16 units at Gates on the former Gates Motel site and 16 units at North Santiam State Park. Both of these projects are taking much longer than expected,” Bethell said.

She said the Gates project will likely be completed this year by early winter. The housing project at North Santiam State Park will take longer, but could open next spring. It is currently undergoing an environmental review.

She said the LIFT project in Mill City will provide 54 affordable multi-family housing units. Bethell said the developers are moving forward, but it’s also a fairly slow process.

Among the hurdles, Bethell said developers need to work around Mill City’s sewer system that lacks capacity. She said the system needed improvements and hoped groundbreaking work could take place in 2023.

Additionally, Bethell said the county purchased 14 acres of land in Mill City to develop more affordable housing. This effort is part of more than $73 million that Oregon Housing and Community Services has distributed to fund more than 600 affordable housing units. The $73 million is separate from the federal grant.

Campbell said the Oregon legislature has allocated more than $150 million to help with wildfire recovery efforts in the state.

In the meantime, Benolken hopes she can return to her new home this summer. She recently received a grant from a local organization to help her build her house. It doesn’t pay for everything, but she is grateful for all the support she has.

“[I’m] grateful for the people and friends I have who have been so helpful and caring,” Benolken said.

Benolken’s family has also started a GoFundMe to help pay for rebuilding and furnishing their home.

While the bulk of the $422 million in federal grants will go towards affordable housing, some will also be used for things like infrastructure, mitigating future fires and disasters, and economic revitalization. But Campbell said unfortunately, while $422 million may seem like a lot to many people, it’s not enough to meet all of Oregon’s wildfire-related needs.

Campbell also said there are currently programs to help people rebuild if they are on low or moderate income. Low-to-moderate income people who have been affected by the 2020 wildfires can ask a disaster manager to help them by calling this helpline: 833-669-0554.

Other than that, there are a number of resources that can help with housing issues. There are also local groups, like the Santiam Canyon Wildfire Relief Fund, that try to help people in specific areas.

Here is a list of housing resources by county from Oregon Housing and Community Services:

Clackamas County
Catholic Charities: 503-688-2694
www.catholiccharitiesoregon.org/services/disaster-services

Douglas County
UCAN: 541-802-6529
www.ucancap.org

Jackson County
ACCESS Center for Community Resilience: 541-414-0318
www.accesshelps.org/ccr

Klamath County
Klamath-Lake Community Action Services: 541-882-3500
www.klcas.org

Lane County
Oregon Department of Social Services: 971-388-9081 (DHS)
www.oregon.gov/dhs/EmergencyManagement/Pages/wildfires.aspx

Lincoln or Linn County
Community Services Consortium: 458-239-2265
communityservices.us

Marion County
Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency: 503-399-9080 (press 6)
mwvcaa.org

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