(The Center Square) – Months after the ashen skies of Oregon’s Labor Day wildfires cleared, hundreds of Oregonians are still waiting on help they say never came long after the blazes were put out.
During Labor Day weekend of 2020, lightning strikes and downed power lines lit about a million acres of the state on fire and turned its state forests into infernos killing 11 people.
The following weeks saw half a million Oregonians placed under evacuation orders as the fires razed some 1,600 square miles of land and more than 4,000 homes with an estimated price tag of $600 million, according to the state's Office of Emergency Management.
In the new year, hundreds of Oregonian families are still waiting on public assistance after losing everything to fires they never saw coming in time.
Labor Day of 2020 seemed like an ordinary Monday for Keyonnie of Detroit, who wished to only be identified by her first name. Keyonnie said she had heard rumors that morning that the city was about to be placed under evacuation, which city officials dismissed.
It was hours later on Tuesday morning that the Marion County Sheriff's Office gave an evacuation warning to Detroit residents and the communities of Santiam Canyon as Keyonnie and her neighbors watched the flames lap the hillside above her home.
Keyonnie, a manager and Detroit resident of two years, now lives in a trailer with her 7-year-old daughter after escaping with a handful of supplies shared among three other fleeing families. She says she never imagined evacuating after living through 20 fires in rural Oregon.
She says the promise of federal aid is still just a promise months later as the two depend on a single water tank she fills every three days. Her daughter, who’s been learning online with the help of a local public internet hub in Detroit, will be bused Santiam school district this week.
“They just keep saying, ‘It’s coming, they’re trying their best,’” Keyonnie said. “Besides that, we really don’t hear much up here from them. It’s like Detroit has disappeared.”
By Keyonnie’s estimates, the fires took at least 300 buildings in the area and displaced some 60 families, but that has not changed what she says is a strong community.
“This town is very close we are one big family,” Keyonnie said. “We all know each other. We watch out for one another and are always right there when we are needed.”
It’s that sense of family that Keyonnie says helped survivors like her through the evacuation while assistance of all kinds is lagging behind for many families.
In the months since the Trump administration declared a major federal disaster in Oregon, the state has seen about $116 million in state and federal funds for wildfire recovery efforts with $33 million of that money set aside for homeowners and renters.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is working to place 267 families in mobile homes which 18 months, according to Oregon FEMA spokesperson Paul Corah. Approximately 86 families had been placed with mobile homes as of last week, but their utility bills have to be paid out of pocket, Corah said.
The Santiam Canyon Wildfire Relief Fund, created last fall under the Santiam Hospital Service, has raised about $2.9 million to date, according to service coordinator Melissa Bauer who knows of about 300 families in need right now. The fund is responsible for connecting families with food banks, shelter, and mental health services in addition navigating and appealing denied FEMA claims.
“[The FEMA application process] requires quite a bit of documentation and that might be documentation that was lost in the fire,” Bauer said. “And so that is a challenge for families to be able to get in that amount of documentation and to complete their application when they are experiencing some PTSD and trauma.”
Survivors like Stephanie Lynch of Gates, a bank employee with underlying conditions who has quarantined since the pandemic began, say they are still waiting on federal aid, denial after denial.
“They keep throwing me through hoops I have already done,” Lynch said. “I just want FEMA to help, like they said they would. But they keep giving me the run around.”
Lynch says she has waited on the DMV since October to send her a copy of the title to the trailer home she lost to the fires. Without it, Lynch will have to wait on the insurance payout she needs to rebuild.
Charities such as the Red Cross and United Way, have raised millions in wildfire relief for meals and hotel rooms.
In an email statement, Red Cross Regional Director Chad Carter said the charity “already spent or made commitments to spend” about $15.3 million on unspecified relief on December 31, including $450 payments for some 1,800 Oregon families. How much of that money has been paid out is still unclear.
In November, Oregon lawmakers set aside $65 million in state money for local foundations to buy and convert motels into shelters for wildfire survivors and the chronically homeless in the dead of winter.
Three months later, a Super 8 Motel in Ashland is the lone site to be approved for “Project Turnkey.” It will house up to 30 people and be run by the charity foundation Options for Helping Residents of Ashland under a $4.2 million grant.
Santiam Canyon residents say public aid is nowhere near the needed amount.
At the start of February, Marion County Commissioners awarded a $50,000 grant to decimated Mill City in lieu of landing a $200,000 grant from Business Oregon the county board applied for days beforehand. Board members claimed they only recently become aware of the city of 1,855 people's dire straits some weeks ago.
One bottleneck in the process, according to Bauer, is ensuring shelters can accommodate disabled residents under federal law—an issue state lawmakers expressed concern about last fall.
“The biggest challenge is that we have families with [housing] vouchers, but we don't have landlords that have open vacancies or they're just out of the range and they're not willing to adjust their rents,” Bauer said. “That’s another big problem.”
Despite the hardships of the past five months, residents like Keyonnie say they do not want to live anywhere else.
“I love my town and still love my town,” Keyonnie said. “I don’t want to leave here. That’s why I fought so hard to come back home after the fire.”
On Tuesday, Detroit finally received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to restore its running water. It's not clear how many weeks that will take to make happen.
Oregon’s wildfire survivors had the chance to get a word with their state representatives before the Senate and House committees on Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery on Monday.