Visitors, former residents tour mobile home parks recovering from Almeda Fire

After losing their home in Talent’s Mountain View Estates in the 2020 Almeda Fire, Judy Baalman and her husband, Tony, knew there was only one place they wanted to live.

Mountain View Estates.

It had been their home for more than 21 years.

“We wanted to be back,” Baalman said.

She recounted their story of displacement and return for about two dozen people Wednesday in the manufactured home park, a place still scarred with rectangular pits, some filled with grass and weeds, where houses once stood.

It was the first stop on a three-stop bus tour of manufactured home parks recovering from the fire that, on Sept. 8, 2020, began in north Ashland and ripped northwest through Talent, Phoenix and parts of unincorporated Jackson County. The blaze eliminated about 2,500 residences, scores of additional structures and killed three people.

The Baalmans were among the thousands dislocated. Mountain View Estates, a park for people 55 and older, lost 143 of 164 residences.

The tour was given by Rogue Valley Transportation District and hosted by Firebrand Resiliency Collective — née Remake Talent — a nonprofit headquartered in Phoenix that began as a response to the fire, then evolved into a group focused on helping the communities rebuild with an eye toward durability.

With local officials, agency representatives and fire survivors on board, the event showed riders where recovery is taking place — often at very different paces. It was the first of three planned tours.

Cassandra Cornwell, a fire survivor who coordinates Firebrand’s Zone Captain program, said in a text that the tours can help survivors who haven’t yet found permanent housing “find out about what’s being built.”

The tours can also help make people who didn’t lose their homes more aware that “hundreds of people who did are still far from recovered,” she said.

Tucker Teutsch, Firebrand’s founder and executive director, recalled national news coverage speculating that the scattered survivors had left the area for good.

“What we’re seeing here is actually a real resilient return and a lot of determination from the residents that not only lived here” — Mountain View Estates — “but also lived in the other parks,” he said.

Cassandra’s father, Doyle Cornwell — the park’s resident manager whose home also burned — told the visitors, “The recovery has been fairly rapid.”

More than 50 homes have been replaced, he said.

Baalman said it never occurred to her and Tony to leave the Rogue Valley.

“I was born here, my husband was raised here,” she said, “and it’s home.”

Their new house — which she said is Energy Star-certified — was rebuilt within sight of the space that held their old dwelling. After purchasing the home with their insurance payout, they were reimbursed with a state fire-hardening grant administered by Jackson County, another grant through the state Department of Energy and a third through the Energy Trust of Oregon.

“It’s wonderful, now that we’re home,” she later said in an interview. “But it was a very hard thing to go through.”

She added: “Sometimes I actually feel guilty that it went so well for us, because so many people have struggled and struggled and struggled.”

At the tour’s second stop, Talent Mobile Estates — the lower-income, predominantly Latino community across Highway 99 — fewer than a dozen homes were still standing after the fire took out almost 90.

Two new homes had recently arrived — dark blue modular units, with white ends and trim, one with a yellow door, the other with a magenta door — from Hacienda Community Development Corporation. The rest are expected to arrive within a year.

In July 2022, Community and Shelter Assistance Corporation (CASA) of Oregon purchased the park and is working with Coalición Fortaleza, a local nonprofit, to turn the manufactured home park into Southern Oregon’s first resident-owned community. The inhabitants will own their homes and a share in the land beneath it.

“It’s almost three years, and there’s so many people still that need to recover,” Erica Ledesma, Coalición Fortaleza’s co-founder and executive director, told the group.

Talent Mayor Darby Ayers-Flood recalled in an interview the dense canopy of trees that shaded the neighborhood pre-fire. On Wednesday, the sun beat down unimpeded on blank gravel lots where new homes will go.

A current concern is Talent turning into a heat island. “This is one of the most affected spots, right here in this park, because of what was here and what is no longer here,” Ayers-Flood said in the interview.

At the final stop, Pacific Village in Phoenix, the fire consumed all 82 housing units, said Rian Antinarelli, who manages the park with her husband.

The park will have 82 units once again, she said. As of mid-May, almost a dozen had arrived. The homes sold so far have all gone to residents wanting to return, she said.

Antinarelli, her husband and their children lived in space No. 10 before the fire. She said rebuilding Pacific Village, watching it come together, has been healing for them.

“To be at this point has provided our family with, I think, the necessary therapy, if you will, to move forward,” she said.

She was standing with the group in the newly rebuilt village clubhouse.

The park is planning a playground and a pool, right where they used to be, she said. Her children are looking forward to the day they can have a potluck with their neighbors.

In a mobile home park, she said, “there’s a piece of community there that you can’t replace.”

Antinarelli saw in the audience a former village neighbor, Michael Rhoades, who lost the house he shared with his wife. In an interview, he said the worst loss was a lifetime of journals that dated back from before high school.

Rhoades works for Firebrand as a zone captain for elders. The Zone Captain program, which employs several fire survivors, connects other survivors to resources that help them rebuild.

Rhoades ordered his new mobile home in 2021, but Pacific Village wasn’t ready to receive it. So Rhoades and his wife planted it at Bear Creek Mobile Home Park near Ashland.

After the fire, when authorities deemed it safe to return, Rhoades and his wife visited Pacific Village and brought their long-haired Chihuahua, Nicky.

At one point, they let Nicky out to pee.

“The grass was still here, and green, and he recognized that,” Rhoades told the audience. “You could really tell that he knew where he was.”


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Visitors, former residents tour mobile home parks recovering from Almeda Fire