When the Almeda Fire began ripping through the Bear Creek Valley in Southern Oregon, John Vial called his wife and daughter from his desk at the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center to tell them they needed to evacuate from their home. “My wife asked me what she should take,” said Vial. “I told her I don’t care, leave everything. Just get out and get to a safe place. Do it now.”
Vial’s home survived the fire. Thousands of others in Jackson County did not.
Vial is the director of the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center, and has been tirelessly leading wildfire recovery efforts for the county.
Jackson County sustained over 60% of the state’s damage from the 2020 Oregon wildfires—losing over 2,400 homes and 173 businesses. The towns of Talent and Phoenix were especially hard hit, with entire subdivisions completely destroyed.
Members of Oregon’s Debris Management Task Force traveled to Jackson County last week to meet with Vial and survey the damage in these communities.
What we saw was absolutely devastating: block after block after block of homes and businesses completely destroyed. The occasional brick chimney stood intact among gray fields of ash and debris, twisted metal and car skeletons. Eighteen mobile home communities were wiped out—many of them low-income, over 55, or Latinx communities.
“We really are in a category of our own. I want people to see it, because it helps you understand the level of devastation we’re dealing with here,” said Vial.
To put things in perspective: the Phoenix-Talent School District estimated last week that about 30 percent of its students lost their homes to wildfire. 30 percent. That number has been fluctuating, and could be even higher.
The Debris Management Task Force consists of the Oregon Department of Emergency Management, Department of Environmental Quality, and Department of Transportation. Core members include Brian Boling of Oregon DEQ and Mac Lynde of ODOT, Alyssa Carrier and Cameron Morris of AC Disaster Consulting, which is a contractor for OEM, and two public information officers, Lauren Wirtis and myself, Laura Gleim, who both work for Oregon DEQ.
The goal of the task force is to help ensure that people can return to their homes and their lives as quickly as possible – but that is going to take time and a lot of hard, hands-on work. Beginning next week, crews from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin removing hazardous materials from properties whose owners have signed right of entry forms through their respective counties. First up is Jackson County, with crews expanding to other counties in the coming weeks. Once the hazards are cleared, the properties will be ready for step two in the cleanup process: full removal of the remaining ash and debris. Then people can rebuild.
Seeing the destruction up close left us stunned—but also more determined than ever to help Oregon recover from its worst natural disaster in modern history.
Find more information about this effort at wildfire.oregon.gov/cleanup
—Laura Gleim, public affairs specialist