In the center of what was once the small town of Malden, Wash., on a weekday in April sat 23 RVs housing survivors of the Pine Creek-area wildfire.
Just as the last houses were being reconstructed from the devastating 2014 and 2015 wildfires in the Okanagan area of northcentral Washington, more crews are needed to rebuild more houses destroyed by the 2020 wildfires.
In southern Oregon, between the cities of Medford and Ashland, 18 mobile home parks – which provide critical housing for many low-income and underinsured families in the area – were destroyed by the September 2020 wildfires. There are still thousands of people living in shelters across the state.
“Disaster recovery is a long road,” said Dana Bryson, who is the co-coordinator of disaster response in the Pacific Northwest Conference with his wife Kathy Bryson.
To say disaster response coordinators from across the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area have been busy these last eight months is an understatement.
They have successfully applied for grants to assist with long-term recovery from not only the devastating wildfires in September 2020, but also flooding that happened earlier in the year and they are working with other community partners to hopefully apply for more funding and provide more re-building support in the months and years to come.
The Brysons, along with Oregon-Idaho Conference Disaster Response Coordinator Dan Moseler, have worked with United Methodist Churches in each of the communities impacted by wildfires to help with sheltering individuals, hygiene kit distribution, school supplies and so much more.
Pine Creek, Babb Road Fire
When the Babb Road Fire swept through Malden in September, it wiped out the small town with 80 to 90 percent of structures being lost, Kathy Bryson reported.
“There is still a lot of debris,” she said. “There’s just nothing there.”
Except, of course, for the RVs parked in the middle of town, with residents who haul in water from elsewhere to their makeshift homes.
Typically, multi-response agencies work to set up a long-term recovery group, but that has been hard to establish in Malden since nearly everyone there is a survivor, Bryson said.
“A lot of people don’t want to leave,” she said. “They went through the winter in RVs.”
Bryson made her second trip to the area in April to check on progress and meet with other members of the newly formed Pine Creek Community Restoration Group. Through United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), Bryson has been able to train eight volunteer disaster case managers for the Pine Creek fire restoration group. Disaster case managers help survivors navigate the process of re-building, applying for assistance from the federal government, and much more.
Most of the people impacted were either uninsured or underinsured.
Bryson said she hopes as the long-term recovery group is established here in this small town located 40 miles south of Spokane, they can begin applying for grants to begin the rebuilding process.
“This will be a long recovery,” she said.
The Almeda Fire in southern Oregon
In Jackson County alone, more than 2,300 homes were destroyed by the Almeda Fire that swept through the towns of Phoenix and Talent – located between Medford and Ashland in southern Oregon – on Sept. 8, 2020.
According to Moseler, across Oregon more than 4,000 homes were destroyed as wildfires raged up and down the Interstate 5 corridor in early and mid-September.
United Methodist Churches in southern Oregon were prepared to shelter and offered initial assistance in the form of hygiene kit distribution and more. As the wildfires raged Upper Rogue Valley UMC was the landing spot for several helicopters dropping fire retardant nearby.
But the churches continue to be involved, Moseler said. Rev. Dr. Brett Strobel, pastor at Ashland UMC, has been part of the recovery group’s emotional and spiritual care committee. Medford UMC has provided space for Unete, a non-profit organization that supports farm workers and immigrant advocacy. The vast majority of those impacted by the Almeda Fire were Hispanic/Latinx families.
Moseler said there is still a lot of organizing work that needs to be done to even apply for grant funds from UMCOR to support long term recovery work.
Recovering in Okanagan – again
When wildfires rolled through the Okanagan area of northcentral Washington in September 2020, they passed by some of the homes and structures that had just been finished rebuilding after devastating wildfires in 2014 and 2015.
“We still have a handful of open cases from the 2014-2015 fires,” said Dana Bryson. “The 2020 fires touched a lot of the same areas.”
Thankfully, the long-term recovery group from the last fires was still in place and they were able to reestablish disaster case management once again. Bryson said members of the long-term recovery group are also thankful that the recent fires didn’t destroy any of the re-building done from earlier fires. As part of re-building standards, Bryson said fire buffer zones are typically added into the re-building process, which may have saved several homes this past wildfire season.
There were approximately 400 open cases for survivors in the immediate aftermath of the wildfires, but Bryson said that has been knocked down to approximately 100 open cases for support in the last several months.
The existing infrastructure of disaster response groups is what also helped secure a $100,000 grant from UMCOR for recovery efforts in the area. Bryson said that grant, along with disaster response contributions from the Pacific Northwest Conference, enable disaster case managers to begin working with survivors immediately.
Meanwhile, Greater Northwest Area Hispanic/Latinx Ministries Coordinator Cruz Edwin Santos was able to get Hispanic volunteers into migrant communities to aid where other organizations perhaps struggled due to language barriers, forms and reporting.
UMCOR grants funded the initial case management work along with a volunteer coordinator. Re-building materials are also being purchased through these grants.
“Now we need the volunteers,” Bryson said.