Still Burning—Relief for Oregon Wildfire Victims
Portland and the Willamette Valley spent last weekend shrouded in a haze of wildfire smoke that stranded people – especially those with breathing and lung problems – indoors and placed a surreal tint over an otherwise sunny weekend. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) classified air quality conditions as ‘Unhealthy’ at 23 of its 33 air quality monitoring stations, with only one out of the 33 stations across the state at ‘Normal’ air quality levels.
But a weekend of smoky skies is a minor inconvenience compared to the fights being waged to control forest fires across the west, from Washington and Idaho to California and Nevada. In Oregon alone, there are almost a dozen current major fires. The largest of those, the Canyon Creek fire, is leaving particularly significant destruction in its wake. According to the Grant County Sherriff’s Office, 39 residences were destroyed in the fire’s path, with more than 50 additional structures damaged. And, over 150 other structures are still threatened. On Sunday, more than 830 people were fighting the blaze as it spanned 70,000 acres. The fire has left families homeless and displaced, with others facing impending evacuations and little control over the fates of their homes and possessions.
For some of the families who saw their homes decimated by the Canyon Creek fire and Oregon’s other wildfires, the new Wildfire Damage Housing Relief Account, created through a bipartisan bill during Oregon’s 2015 Legislative Session, may provide a glimmer of hope. The program provides a small grant – $5,000 – for Oregon families that lose their homes from a wildfire.
So, how does the Wildfire Damage Housing Relief Account work?
Currently, the program is capped at $50,000, allowing for grants to 10 households. But, due to the large damages from this summer’s wildfires, there is talk of expanding the number of grants allotted when the Legislature meets again during September’s Legislative Days. Until then, the program will provide grants on a first-come first-serve basis, assuming the applicant meets a few requirements.
The Wildfire Damage Housing Relief Account focuses on helping Oregonians with lower incomes who have lost their homes due to wildfire; to qualify, an applicant must have a household income that is 75% or less of the Federal Poverty Level based on the household size. For instance, a family of four (2015 Federal Poverty Level Household Income: $24,250) with a house destroyed by fire would qualify for the $5,000 grant if it had a household income of $18,188 or less.1
Other necessary factors to receive the grant include that the applicant must be an Oregon resident, live primarily in and own the residence damaged by wildfire, and that the household’s residence be uninhabitable unless it is repaired or otherwise replaced.
Households meeting the grant’s criteria have 180 days from the loss of their home to apply for the grant. Oregon Housing and Community Services, which administers the program, promises to process complete applications and send grant money to homeowners within one month of receiving the completed application.
And, the application is short; only two pages plus supporting household income and residence information. It is available online here.
The weather forecast is mixed, but hope continues for conditions with light to no wind that help minimize additional opportunities for fire to spread. The weeks ahead will be difficult for the thousands of firefighters across Oregon as well as the residents living nearby.
As Oregon’s firefighters continue to work to contain the blazes, there are a number of other ways to help these displaced households and communities. The Red Cross, which had a shelter in John Day until the Canyon Creek fire was contained enough to allow most residents to return to their homes, has a special wildfire relief fund to help displaced households across the west. In John Day and the surrounding areas, residents are collecting donations of household supplies, food and money for those displaced within their community. To donate money to the American Red cross, go online to their website.