Long after wildfires race through rural communities, mobile home parks still await rebuilding
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The wildfires in New Mexico are yet more evidence that climate change is making U.S. fire seasons more severe than ever. Over the past few years, wildfires have destroyed thousands of homes, mostly in the West.
Some of those homeowners decide to move to less fire-prone areas, while others choose to rebuild, this time with better fireproofing. But their poorer neighbors — those who live in manufactured housing — don’t tend to have those options. They often don’t own the structures, or if they do, they lack insurance or are grossly underinsured and unable to replace the manufactured home after a catastrophic loss.
When a series of devastating wildfires swept through Oregon in early September 2020 — driven west by extreme winds coming down the river valleys of the Cascade range in central Oregon and driven north up creek beds and dry brush along the Interstate 5 corridor in southern Oregon — well over 1,000 manufactured homes burned.
Many were in mobile home parks, which are prone to fire damage with decades-old homes packed close together, often with connecting awnings or carports. These places are often home to many people on low or fixed incomes.
The McKenzie River Valley hosts some of these sites. The river rushes west from the crest of the Cascades through a steep, wooded valley to the Eugene metro area, where the University of Oregon resides.
The McKenzie is known for its fishing, hiking and mountain biking; the area is scattered with backwoods camps and resorts. And along state Route 126 — the two-lane highway that follows the river — near the small town of Blue River, used to be the Lazy Days Mobile Home & RV Park, where Robin Roderick was manager.
“I could look out my kitchen window doing dishes and look at the mountain covered in trees,” Roderick said. “Very pretty.”
A few dozen mobile homes and recreational vehicles basked in that setting until Labor Day weekend 2020, when extreme winds and dry forest conditions drove a fast-moving wildfire, the Holiday Farm Fire, down the valley. It burned through several towns, including Blue River, leaving few structures standing in its wake.
“It was very traumatic,” Roderick said. “Seventy-six lost their homes in Lazy Days.” The escape was harrowing, she said, but in the end all the residents got out safely.
But every single home in the park burned to the ground. Jacob Fox, executive director of Homes for Good, Lane County’s public housing agency, came out to view the damage. “It was an inferno here. When I first came after the fire, the chassis of the homes were melted.”
The site has now been cleared of debris. All that’s left is charred tree stumps and barren concrete pads, along with the original multicolored park sign at the entryway — inexplicably spared by the flames.
Most of the former residents paid about $750 per month to live at Lazy Days, Roderick said. Pretty inexpensive for an area popular with tourists and second-home owners.
“We had Section 8 families [who received rent subsidies], veterans, people who worked upriver at the local resorts,” said Roderick, who’s kept up with many of the displaced tenants as they’ve scattered around the region. “Most everybody, they’ve all moved on. Now I do know that there are some just hoping something will come back into Lazy Days so they can move back home.”
That’s exactly Homes for Good’s goal, Fox said — to build an affordable, publicly funded, rural mobile home park on the ashes of Lazy Days, “to make sure that the people that were displaced, or the people that live here that have housing instability, get to move here.”
There’s a desperate need for affordable housing like that across rural Oregon, said Democratic State Rep. Pam Marsh, whose southern Oregon district was also devastated by the 2020 Labor Day wildfires.
It was especially hit hard by the Alameda Fire, which swept north from the outskirts of Ashland through the working-class communities of Talent and Phoenix and the city of Medford. “We lost about 2,500 homes. Of those, 1,500 to 1,700 were manufactured homes or RVs.”
Marsh said the loss of so much affordable housing has made it hard for retirees on fixed incomes and working families to stay in the area.
Marsh is seeing rebuilding pick up now, more than 18 months after the fires. She said it’s mostly homeowners rebuilding, thanks to insurance payments. “So we’re seeing single-family neighborhoods that a year ago were piles of debris, that now are actually springing up. But the manufactured-home parks are barely doing anything.”
The story is the same in central Oregon, along the McKenzie River highway. Big, new country homes with river views are going up. But little else.
Melanie Stanley lives in Blue River and works for a relief group in the area. She lost her family home and general store in the fire, and she’s using insurance money to rebuild. Stanley said most of the landlords who had properties that burned aren’t rebuilding them as month-to-month rentals.
“They’re rebuilding them as Airbnbs,” she said, “or as just a secondary dwelling for themselves. A lot of the renters will not be able to return, at least not now.”
That’s where Homes for Good’s plan could help, Fox said. The former owner of the Lazy Days site wasn’t interested in rebuilding, and in December 2021, the agency purchased it for about $700,000. Engineering and land assessments have been completed, and construction there — using fire-resistant materials and landscaping — could start this summer.
There will be 25 to 30 modular homes and spaces for modified RVs and tiny homes, for rent to people who earn no more than 60% of the area median income.
But Fox said this is the agency’s ultimate vision: “The idea that the people who live here actually own their home and maybe even cooperatively own the land under it.”
Fox meets regularly with local officials, school leaders, business owners and residents. He acknowledged that there’s still a fair amount of skepticism in the area about his agency and the project.
“People who live around here do have questions,” he said, “like, is Homes for Good going to move people from the Eugene metro area that maybe are experiencing homelessness up to the Lazy Days Mobile Home Park?”
Fox said it wouldn’t make sense to put people in need of urban services in a remote, rural location. The goal is to restore some of the affordable housing that wildfires destroyed — for local residents.
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