Lower income applicants were about four times more likely to be denied than those with higher incomes
Jefferson Public Radio has an article by April Ehrlich who reported that after the disastrous wildfires in Oregon in 2020 the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied about 57 percent of the 27,000 applications for federal assistance.
As an example, a woman who had lived in her home since 2012 was denied help because, as the letter from FEMA said, “You are not eligible for housing assistance because you did not prove you lived in the damaged home at the time of the disaster.” The homeowner, Maria Meunier, is one of the 14,000 Oregonians whose applications were not approved, but she is one of only 290 people who appealed the denials. Only 40 of the appeals were approved, but Ms. Meunier’s was not one of them.
Below is an excerpt from the article at Jefferson Public Radio:
Oregon’s high rates of denial are on par with previous natural disasters. FEMA denied about 60% of Puerto Rican disaster assistance applicants after Hurricane Maria. A study by Texas Hausers, a housing nonprofit, found that FEMA denied a quarter of disaster applicants after Hurricane Harvey hit there.
Many of the people who have been denied assistance are low-income. Among Hurricane Harvey applicants, people whose annual incomes were below $15,000 had a 46% denial rate. People with annual incomes exceeding $70,000 had a 10% denial rate.
JPR has a pending data request with FEMA to obtain income and demographic information about Oregon applicants who were impacted by wildfires in 2020.
Following Oregon’s wildfires, FEMA issued press releases encouraging people to appeal. They said the appeals process could be as simple as correcting a typo or providing a missing document.
Disaster victim advocates and legal aid attorneys say appealing FEMA’s denials is anything but simple; and that by denying so many people the first time, the agency is using a complex bureaucratic process to weed out people who likely need the most help.
“People who’ve been affected by a disaster are dealing with trauma,” said attorney Tracy Figueroa with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “They’re trying to pull the documents together, and just hearing “no” from one entity or another can shut things down. They don’t know how to navigate the bureaucracy. They’re just done.”
Figueroa and other legal aid attorneys say applicants almost always need an attorney to help them find and deliver documents, provide context for their living situations, and continually follow up with FEMA representatives.
People with limited resources are less likely to have access to a lawyer. Disaster-prone states like Texas, where Figueroa has worked through 18 federal disasters, have teams of legal aid attorneys that help low-income disaster victims. But in states like Oregon, which rarely sees a disaster as destructive as the Almeda Fire, there are few private or nonprofit attorneys who are experienced in FEMA disaster assistance.
FEMA’s denial letters aren’t always clear about how applicants can amend their applications. For example, several Oregon applicants told JPR that they were denied assistance because they have homeowner’s insurance; a common misunderstanding, since FEMA often lists homeowners insurance as a reason for denial. Rather, FEMA can help people with homeowners insurance, but those applicants need to follow a few other steps first. They need to see what their insurance will cover and provide that documentation to FEMA, then they need to apply for a loan through the Small Business Administration, even if they don’t intend to take out a loan. At that point, they could go back to FEMA with an appeal.
Challenges with mobile homes
Jackson County officials say two-thirds of the homes destroyed by the Almeda Fire were manufactured homes. Like Meunier, mobile homeowners face a number of challenges in applying for disaster assistance. They need to provide months-long proof that they paid space rent, a copy of their lease agreement and a title to their home, which isn’t always available because of the generally informal process of buying a mobile home.
“For people who are living in mobile homes, they may not have those title documents,” said Sarah Saadian of the Low Income Housing Coalition. “Even if your state may require you to register it, it just doesn’t happen like that. Sometimes the park owner might have it. Sometimes it’s never delivered when the home is delivered.”
Saadian and the Low Income Housing Coalition are encouraging FEMA and Congress to enact legislation that allows mobile homeowners to self-certify homeownership in lieu of title documents, a process that had been allowed after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. FEMA only allows self-attestation in U.S. territories, not in the states.
Mobile home parks have historically been located in areas that are susceptible to natural disasters, including wildfires and hurricanes.
“They’re in areas where wildfires occur and where flooding can occur because they’re tucked away,” said attorney Ilene Jacobs with the California Rural Legal Assistance. “Some of them are quite substandard and are in areas adjacent to a highway.”
The Almeda Fire burned through the Bear Creek Greenway, a riparian area and bike path running along the Interstate 5 freeway. Several manufactured home parks abutted the greenway and freeway before the fire raged through those properties.
FEMA has begun moving Manufactured Housing Units (MHUs) onto a newly constructed site in Mill City, Oregon that will provide temporary housing for qualified wildfire survivors and their families.
Several communities southeast of Salem along Highway 22 suffered severe impacts from the Beachie Creek and Lionshead Fires which grew large during the wind event of September 7 and 8, 2020. Some of the worst hit towns were Mill City and Gates.
Construction on the new Mill City site began earlier this month, with work completed ahead of schedule. The site is currently scheduled to receive 13 manufactured housing units (MHUs) and can accommodate up to 16 MHUs, providing necessary temporary housing for the qualified residents of both Linn and Marion counties.
As soon as all MHU are delivered and placed on site, each unit will be given a final inspection ensuring they are ready for occupancy, and families will be scheduled to move into their temporary homes.
To date, 85 families whose homes were severely damaged or destroyed by this year’s wildfires have been approved for temporary housing units. These units are placed in established RV parks or in FEMA constructed group sites.
In addition to Linn and Marion counties, FEMA’s Direct Housing mission is establishing temporary housing for qualified disaster survivors in Jackson and Lincoln counties in sites like the one in Mill City. Housing units are chosen by FEMA based on the survivor family composition and needs, as well as to ensure that requirements for access or functional needs are met.
Currently, 240 qualified families are scheduled to receive FEMA Direct Temporary Housing in the four counties. The current number of qualified families has fallen as many households that qualified for this assistance have located alternate temporary or permanent housing on their own.
Other programs for fire victims such as rental assistance may be available. Apply online at DisasterAssistance.gov, by downloading the FEMA app, or by calling the disaster assistance helpline at 800-621-3362 from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. PDT, seven days a week.
Would grant access to 26,000 acres for $1.35/month per animal
The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to issue four grazing permits to the Oregon-based Hammond Ranch which for 10 years would allow them access to 26,000 acres of taxpayers’ land for $1.35 per animal unit month.
On September 30, 2001 the two Hammonds distributed boxes of matches to everyone in their hunting party with instructions to“light up the whole country on fire”. Initially they ignited fires on their property but the fires spread onto 139 acres of federal land.
Steven Hammond was also convicted of setting a series of fires on August 22, 2006. Those ignitions, during Red Flag Warning conditions, compromised the safety of firefighters who were working on another fire nearby. Some of them were forced to retreat from the area for their own safety. They were given advice and led to safety via radio by an orbiting Air Attack.
Anyone can protest the BLM’s proposed decision by sending a letter, by January 13, 2020, to:
Field Manager, Andrews/Steens Resource Areas
Burns District BLM
28910 Hwy 20 W.
Hines, OR 97738
Below is a press release from the Western Watersheds Project about the proposed grazing permit.
January 4, 2021
BURNS, Ore. – In the very last moments of 2020, the Bureau of Land Management issued a proposed decision to award grazing privileges to Hammonds Ranches, Inc., despite the history of abuses of grazing privileges by these public land’s ranchers—including actions leading to arson convictions. The BLM notified interested parties of the decision on New Year’s Day, a federal holiday.
“Giving the permit to the Hammonds shows a flagrant disregard for the rule of law, both by the former permittees and by Secretary Bernhardt, and is clearly a political move rather than a responsible allocation of public lands,” said Erik Molvar, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “There is a documented history of permit violations, criminal convictions, and overgrazing of allotments as recently as 2019.”
The proposed grazing decision was posted late in the day on December 31, 2020, and the online planning site states that the Hammonds Ranches, Inc. “will be apportioned preference due to their extensive historic use of these allotments, past proper use of rangeland resources, a high level of general need, and advantages conferred by topography.” The Hammonds past “proper” use of the allotments has included arson, unauthorized livestock use, overgrazing, and alleged intimidation of federal employees. Just six years ago, the Bureau of Land Management refused to reissue the same permits because, “The Hammonds’ malicious disregard for human life and public property shows contempt for BLM regulation of public lands.”
“It’s reminiscent of Secretary Ryan Zinke’s decision to give the Hammonds permits on his very last day in office on January 2, 2019,” said Sarah McMillan, Conservation Director for WildEarth Guardians. “That decision was unlawful and rightly overturned by the courts. With one foot out the door, the Trump Administration is trying, again, to allow these bad-actor permittees to run roughshod over public lands.”
Smoke exposure levels at the Creek Fire ranged from hazardous to unhealthy for 30 days
(From Bill: Wildland firefighters and people who live in areas where long-term fires are common, such as Northern California and the Northwest, know that smoke can persist for days or weeks and can cause or aggravate respiratory and other medical issues. But knowing it exists and having peer reviewed quantifiable data proving it is hazardous to health, are two different things. Science like this could lead to changes that may benefit firefighters and the general public.)
In September and October the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deployed two staff members to serve as air resource advisors at wildfires in Oregon and California.
Air resource advisors were fully integrated into the wildfire incident management teams to provide insights into understanding and predicting smoke exposure levels. The individuals interacted with stakeholders, including air quality regulators, fire personnel, public health practitioners, and community residents. A primary aspect of this engagement was to forecast smoke levels for areas immediately affected by fires and generate a daily smoke outlook to keep stakeholders informed about prevailing smoke levels. 2020 is the first year during which the CDC worked with the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program and deployed staff members as air resource advisors for wildfire incidents.
From August 31 to September 14, 2020, one CDC staff member supported wildfires in central Oregon’s Cascade Range east of Sisters, which included the Beachie Creek, Holiday Farm, Lionshead, and Riverside fires. Strong east winds across the Cascade Mountains resulted in more than 560,000 acres of fire growth from September 7 through 10.
Another CDC staff member was deployed to the Creek Fire from September 20 to October 5, 2020. This fire near North Fork, California started September 4 and grew to 193,000 acres during its first week; as of December 3, 2020, the fire had burned 379,895 acres.
During these two deployments, several public health concerns came to light. Of note, although smoke from wildfires drifted long distances and affected downwind communities, the brunt of poor air quality was observed in communities adjacent to wildfire incidents. For example, communities near the fires in California and Oregon experienced high concentrations of PM2.5, as measured by air quality monitors, resulting in “Unhealthy” to “Hazardous” conditions, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index.
Fire personnel who camped and rested between work shifts at nearby fire camps (North Fork, California and Sisters, Oregon) were also exposed to poor air quality levels. These fire camp exposures contribute to higher overall cumulative smoke exposure and, along with other occupational risk factors such as fatigue and stress, could limit recovery that is much needed for fire personnel while away from the active fire perimeter. In addition, environmental hazards such as extreme heat and higher concentrations of ambient carbon monoxide were prevalent during days with heavy smoke and after extreme fire growth days. These hazards added a layer of complexity to fire response efforts and might have limited fire personnel recovery between work shifts.
From: Navarro K, Vaidyanathan A. — Notes from the Field: Understanding Smoke Exposure in Communities and Fire Camps Affected by Wildfires— California and Oregon, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1873–1875. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6949a4
Steve Stenkamp sent us photos of another lookout tree in Oregon. This one is on the Ochoco National Forest between Bend and John Day. Previously he documented one on the Deschutes National Forest in Central Oregon.
Years ago, in order to detect new ignitions of wildfires, land management agencies occasionally took advantage of tall trees on hilltops, building platforms near the top with ladders or other climbing aids below.
Mr. Stenkamp used his Phantom 3 Pro drone to get these photos.
“The unique feature is the ‘resting platform’ about 30 feet up,” Mr. Stenkamp said. “The ground cabin was moved to the Ochoco Guard Station when the lookout went out of service.”
Linn County requests records about the suppression of the fire
A county in Oregon has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service that is related to the Beachie Creek Fire that burned over 193,000 acres east of Salem, Oregon in September.
The Davis Wright Tremain law firm in Portland submitted a request September 28 on behalf of Linn county, requesting records related to the fire. The request cited the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which requires a federal agency to respond within 20 business days, unless there are “unusual circumstances,” or notify the party of at least the agency’s determination of which of the requested records it will release, which it will withhold.
About 12 percent of the Fire was in Linn County, with the rest in Marion and Clackamas Counties. The Linn-Marion county line is near Highway 22 close to the communities of Lyons, Mill City, Gates, Detroit, and Idanha where many structures were destroyed.
The Forest Service replied to the FOIA in a letter dated the next day, saying (and this is an exact quote):
Please be advised your request is not perfected at this time and we will be reaching out to you to discuss clarification once it has been to thoroughly review.
After not receiving the documents or apparently hearing nothing further from the Forest Service, the attorneys for Linn County filed a lawsuit November 2, 2020 in the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon.
Below is an excerpt from the complaint:
During its first few days, USFS officials attempted to extinguish the fire, which at that point was 10 to 20 acres, but could not effectively utilize traditional means because the fire was burning on the side of a steep, densely forested mountain…The Beachie Creek Fire thus continued to burn at a relatively small size for days but became a conflagration in early September as conditions became windy and dry, jumping to 200 acres on September 1, 2020, then growing to 500 acres after that. When a windstorm that had been predicted for at least one week prior hit Labor Day night, the Beachie Creek Fire exploded, torching ancient rainforests in the Opal Creek area and roaring down North Santiam Canyon. The fire destroyed the communities of Mill City and Gates, decimated thousands of structures and claimed at least five lives.
The fire was reported August 16, 2020 in the Opal Creek Wilderness about six miles northwest of Detroit Lake in Oregon, about 38 miles east of Salem. According to records in the daily national Incident Management Situation Report and GIS data, the fire was:
–10 acres August 26, 10 days after it was reported;
–23 acres August 31, 15 days after it was reported;
–150 acres September 3, 18 days after it was reported;
–469 acres September 7, 22 days after it was reported; (just before the wind event that began that night).
Forest Service officials told the Statesman Journal it tried to put out the fire during its first few days, and that fire crews dumped “a ton of water” on it. They said they couldn’t safely get firefighters in to extinguish the blaze on the ground, which at that point was 10 to 20 acres, because it was burning on the side of a steep, densely-forested mountain.
“You have deep duff, significant litter and a ladder fuel,” [Rick Stratton, a wildfire expert and analyst] said. “That’s why it doesn’t matter how much water you put on it, it can hold heat. You have to have people on the ground working right there, in an area that elite firefighters turned down twice.”
Firefighters worried about flaming debris coming down the mountain and being unable to escape. Firefighter safety has been emphasized since 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed in an Arizona wildfire.
A fixed wing mapping flight at 8:37 p.m. PDT September 9 found that in about 48 hours the fire had spread 25 miles to the northwest from its point of origin and had burned at that time 310,549 acres.
Many fires started in Oregon around August 16 from lightning that moved through northern Californian into Oregon. Conventional wisdom is that the Beachie Creek Fire was a result of the this storm, although the Forest Service has not officially disclosed the cause. Complicating the issue is the reports that the gale force winds of September 7 and 8 caused multiple power lines to fail, starting additional fires which eventually burned into the Beachie Creek Fire.
This fire and others in Oregon, California, and Colorado were crying out for limited numbers firefighters, engines, helicopters, and air tankers but the fire suppression infrastructure available fell far short of the need. This meant that after the wind subsided, putting the huge blazes out quickly was not possible — without rain. Stopping a fire pushed by very strong winds is not possible, regardless of the air power or ground-based firefighting resources available.
Much of Oregon was also in severe to extreme drought along with Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado. This resulted in the moisture content of the vegetation (or fuel) being low, making it receptive to igniting and burning more quickly and intensely than if conditions were closer to average.
Well over 1,000 structures burned. Some of the communities that were hardest hit included Detroit, Mill City, Santiam River, and Gates.
The information Linn County requested from the Forest Service was about the agency’s policy for managing fires, and the Beachie Creek Fire in particular. Some examples:
Contracts and documents relating to arrangements made with outside contractors for firefighting equipment and training in the Pacific Northwest;
Maps and records depicting all former “owl circles” and all locations of other endangered species habitat in the 2 years immediately preceding the Beachie Creek Fire;
Records declaring the Beachie Creek Fire a Prescribed natural Fire, a Management Ignited Fire or a Wildfire, and all records discussing or relating to that declaration;
Records illustrating the Suppression Response for the Beachie Creek Fire;
Records illustrating the Control Strategy for the Beachie Creek Fire;
Records relating to inputs to and outputs derived from the FLAME computer program or any other predictive computer analysis for the Beachie Creek fire for the period commencing on August 1, 2020, through the date records responsive to this request are provided;
All Social media posts discussing or describing the Beachie Creek Fire;
All current Forest Service Manuals in effect immediately preceding the Beachie Creek Fire and effective throughout the Fire Event.
Below is a description of the fire written by the U.S. Forest Service and posted on InciWeb:
“The Beachie Creek Fire was first detected on August 16, 2020 approximately 2 miles south of Jaw Bones flats in rugged terrain deep in the Opal Creek Wilderness. A Type 3 team was ordered to manage the fire on the day it was detected and implemented a full suppression strategy. A hotshot crew tried to hike to the fire within the first 24 hours. They were unable to safely access and engage the fire due to the remote location, steep terrain, thick vegetation and overhead hazards. Fire managers continued to work on gaining access, developing trails, identify lookout locations, exploring options for access and opening up old road systems. The fire was aggressively attacked with helicopters dropping water. A large closure of the Opal Creek area and recreation sites in the Little North Fork corridor was immediately signed and implemented. The fire remained roughly 20 acres for the first week. On August 23rd, the Willamette National Forest ordered a National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Team to develop a long-term management strategy. This is a high-caliber team which has capacity to do strategic planning. The fire grew slowly but consistently and was roughly 200 acres by September 1st, fueled by hot and dry conditions.
“At the beginning of September, a Type 2 Incident Management Team (PNW Team 13) assumed command of the fire. The fire size was estimated to be about 500 acres on September 6th. On that day, the National Weather Service placed Northwest Oregon under a critical fire weather warning due to the confluence of high temperatures, low humidity and rare summer easterly winds that were predicted to hit upwards of 35 mph in the Portland area on Labor Day. The unique wind event on September 7th created an extreme environment in which the fire was able to accelerate. The winds were 50-75 miles per hour, and the fire growth rate was about 2.77 acres per second in areas of the Beachie Creek fire. This allowed the fire to reach over 130,000 acres in one night. Evacuation levels in the Santiam Canyon area went directly to level 3, which calls for immediate evacuation. Additionally, PNW Team 13 was managing the Beachie Creek Fire from their Incident Command Post established in the community of Gates. That evening, a new fire start began at the Incident Command Post forcing immediate evacuation of the Team and fire personnel. From the night of September 7th, these fires became collectively known as the Santiam Fire. Ultimately, the Santiam Fire name reverted back to Beachie Creek Fire in order to reduce confusion for the communities in the area. The Incident Command Post was re-established in Salem at Chemeketa Community College. At the end of the wind event, the Lionshead Fire also merged with the Beachie Creek Fire having burned through the Mount Jefferson Wilderness.
“After the night of the wind event, the Beachie Creek Fire was managed under unified command by PNW Team 13 and the Oregon State Fire Marshal and the focus shifted to recovery and preservation of life and property. On September 17th, a Type 1 IMT (SW Team 2) assumed command of the fire. Growth on the fire slowed and the fire reached 190,000 acres. A second Type 1 team (PNW 3) took over command of the Beachie Creek Fire, along with the Riverside Fire to the north, on September 29th. Evacuation levels were lowered or removed as fire activity slowed. At the beginning of October, seasonal fall weather moved over the fire producing several inches of rain. During these weeks, a BAER (Burned Area Emergency Response) team assessed the burned landscape and habitats to try to evaluate damage. On October 8th, PNW Team 8, a Type 2 team took over management of the fire. Focus efforts on the ground shifted from suppression and mop-up to suppression repair. On October 14, the fire was downgraded and transitioned command to local Type 3 Southern Cascades team. The acreage topped out at 193,573 acres. Closures remain in place to keep the public safe from hazards like falling trees and ash pits that can remain hot and smolder for months after the wildfire event.”
(end of excerpt)
The Forest Service is notorious for flagrantly violating the law in regards to the mandatory standards for providing information requested with a FOIA. They have been known to stall for years, or have simply refused to comply. Not every citizen seeking information from their government has a petty cash account with $400 for the filing fee, or the tens of thousands of dollars it could take to pay attorneys for a FOIA lawsuit. Our citizens deserve transparency. However, it also seems unusual to file a lawsuit approximately 26 business days, as Linn County did, after initially submitting the FOIA — just 6 days over the 20-day requirement.
An investigation should determine how much of an effect, if any, fires reportedly started by power lines had on the destruction of private property. It may turn out that some of the structures along the Highway 22 corridor were destroyed by fires sparked by power lines.
If, as appears to be the case, the suppression activity on the fire was less than aggressive for 22 days while it grew to 469 acres, it may have some similarities to the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2016. After creeping along the ground on a hilltop for five days with no suppression activity except for some helicopter drops one afternoon, the 35-acre fire was pushed by strong winds into the city, causing the deaths of 14 people. Over 130 sustained injuries, and 1,684 structures were damaged or destroyed. Approximately 14,000 residents were forced to evacuate.