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Wildfire

Months Into Wildfire Recovery, Oregonians Share Harrowing Stories With Lawmakers

Mobile home debris at the Royal Oaks Mobile Manor remains months after the Almeda Fire destroyed most of the park on Sept. 8, 2020.
April Ehrlich | JPR News
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Mobile home debris at the Royal Oaks Mobile Manor remains months after the Almeda Fire destroyed most of the park on Sept. 8, 2020.

It’s been five months since wildfires destroyed thousands of homes across Oregon, including 2,500 in Jackson County. State lawmakers with the Oregon House Wildfire Recovery Committee held a public hearing Wednesday night for people to share their stories.

Many people who testified were frustrated. They wanted to know why most of the debris from destroyed homes hasn’t been cleared yet, and why it was so hard to find affordable housing.

One testimony came from Beatrice Gomez of Medford. In Spanish, she said when the Almeda Fire hit her neighborhood on Sept. 8, she and her family were celebrating her birthday. She didn’t get any alerts that the fire was coming, so she didn’t have time to grab important belongings before her mobile home was destroyed.

Now Gomez and her family are struggling to find housing. Through a translator, she said rents have skyrocketed and she can’t afford a place to live.

“I want to know if by the end of this, we’ll have somewhere to live,” she said, through a translator. “Maybe it won’t be a dream home. But, is there going to be somewhere where we could live? I know where we used to live, it wasn't a dream home; but for us, it was a beautiful castle.”

Most of the homes destroyed in Jackson County were mobile homes, and many belonged to Latino families.

Another testimony came from Tanya Pineda of Medford. She said she had been working a full shift as a nurse at a nearby hospital when she saw posts on Facebook about the wildfire. She also didn’t receive any alerts from local agencies, but she was able to leave her shift to gather some belongings.

Now she and her young daughter have to drive past the pile of debris that used to be their mobile home.

“I mean, she’s five,” Pineda said. “She’s able to recognize our structure and she asks, ‘Where’s my home?’ That breaks me to pieces knowing that my daughter has that memory engraved in her. That the place she called home and she grew up and she learned to take her first steps is no longer there.”

At the hearing, lawmakers said they hoped testimonies like these will help them draft bills and policies to better address the needs of wildfire victims in the coming months. Rep. Brian Clem of Salem, who chairs the committee, said there were a few potential bills in the works, including one to address challenges with homeowner’s insurance.

At least a dozen people had trouble bringing their spoken testimony to the virtual hearing because of technical issues. Clem had cycled through several names of people who had signed up to testify.

One was Elva Ledesma of Medford. Her niece, Erica Ledesma, spoke on her behalf.

“She’s clicking on the link but it’s not working for her,” Erica Ledesma explained. “I think this is some of the inequities that exist right now with folks, especially the Latinx [communities] who need more support in being able to attend these meetings that aren't accessible.”