Lawmaker on Labor Day wildfire panel: 'You get direct feedback'
The House will soon see the bulk of the recommendations for what the state should do to help people and communities recover from the Labor Day wildfires that swept Oregon.
But the chairman of the House's special committee on the issue says it has already done something valuable: Let survivors speak directly to lawmakers in a public forum.
Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, said their comments spoke to what was being done — or not — in the aftermath of the fires.
"You get a direct feedback that is not filtered by an agency or a mayor telling you how it's going," he told reporters Monday, March 29, on a conference call with House Speaker Tina Kotek. "You have raw stories from people."
His committee, and the Senate Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery Committee, conducted four joint virtual public meetings during February — one for each major area affected by the wildfires. (The Echo Mountain Complex fire on the central coast was combined with another area.)
They would have had field hearings, except for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
"A lot of people use the term post-traumatic stress disorder, or they describe its symptoms," Clem said. "They say how hard it is to function in processing paperwork and getting necessary forms done when you are still emotionally reeling from the event."
Six of the fires exceeded 100,000 acres each. But one of the smallest fires, Almeda in Southern Oregon, destroyed 3,000 homes.
Clem said even before the start of the 2021 session and before state and federal agencies could get underway, lawmakers signaled quick actions such as assuming the cost of debris cleanup and providing for temporary housing. His committee gets weekly updates on those topics.
"We took some quick actions to let them know their cries for help are being heard," he said, even before the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived.
"The one thing I want to flag is that as a state … we did decide we were not going to let people's cleanup efforts wait to see what would get paid for by FEMA or insurance. The state would front the cost."
If people saw there was no progress on debris removal, Clem said, people might choose to move somewhere else.
"What we heard from California was that the sooner people can get back in, the sooner recovery begins," he said. "That starts with debris cleanup, but the next step is permitting."
Lawmakers in December and January dipped into the state emergency fund to pay some costs of firefighting, debris removal and initial recovery, including planning for a new Department of Forestry fire station in Lyons that was destroyed in the fires.
They will be asked soon to draw more state funds as part of a broader budget-rebalancing bill that is up for consideration in both chambers. Among the proposed spending items is a new engine for the Detroit-Idanha Rural Fire Protection District, whose all-volunteer force lost their truck in the fires.
Clem said the proposed spending includes paying for staff time for retired land use planners and building officials to help small cities — most of them understaffed even before the wildfires — with their reconstruction efforts.
A separate bill, which will emerge from the committee in a couple of weeks, will enable wildfire survivors to rebuild homes and businesses without land-use or other challenges. Clem said there will be some limited exceptions, such as sites within federally defined floodplains that would disqualify them from obtaining flood insurance.
Housing is still a problem, particularly for survivors from the Almeda fire, which swept north from Ashland into Talent and Phoenix and destroyed an estimated 3,000 homes — the largest single concentration of housing lost in the fires. Many of them were in mobile-home parks, and residents without fire insurance and without documentation of legal presence in the United States were left with few alternatives.
Lawmakers dipped into the state emergency fund to start Project Turnkey, which provided money for purchases of motels that owners were willing to put up for sale. But there is still a housing shortage, particularly in Southern Oregon.
"You are on someone else's couch or in a FEMA trailer and you have no idea how you are going to get back into your home," Clem said.
He said the committee was working with the state Department of Housing and Community Services and the Oregon Health Authority to find solutions.
Wildfire survivors were moved up on the priority list for COVID-19 coronavirus immunizations after several of them told the committee that their temporary living quarters put them closer to other people during the pandemic.
Clem, 48, has represented a largely urban district in central and east Salem since 2007. But he grew up in Coos Bay, and has led the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee in four previous cycles, and was a member two other times.
He said several members of the special committee, both Democrats and Republicans, represent communities that were damaged or destroyed by the wildfires — and that partisanship is not playing a role in its work.
Clem said more spending will be proposed to enable wildfire-damaged communities to upgrade their water and septic systems — actions that also protect water supplies for downstream cities, such as Salem and Eugene — and install adequate broadband networks. He said that spending may exceed what federal aid would normally provide.
"The loss from this crisis, along with the pandemic, is substantial," Kotek, a Democrat from Portland, told reporters. "We are committed to making sure those communities are taken care of."
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