Santiam Canyon wildfire survivors face chronic stress, trauma amid uncertainty about future

Two burned homes on each side of the North Santiam River at Gates show the potential for household and agricultural pollutants to flow into the river, a major source of Salem’s drinking water. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Over a year after the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fires burned through the Santiam Canyon in Sept. 2020, hundreds of people displaced were still looking for permanent homes.

That has led to trauma, depression and chronic stress for wildfire survivors who face uncertainty about when they’ll be able to rebuild and return home, a Community Health Impact Assessment of the Santiam Canyon led by Oregon State University found.

The study was conducted between July and November 2021 and released this week.

Of the 322 households the Santiam Integration Team was helping find housing, only 12.7% had found permanent housing. The rest were still in hotels, temporary rentals, couch surfing or living in an RV.

While that data point doesn’t represent all of the more than 700 families who lost their homes, it provides a glimpse into how long it’s taking people displaced by wildfires to find housing and stability.

“The way I describe it is I feel like I’ve been erased … I just look around where I’m staying now and I just feel like my whole life has been erased. Because I can’t go back and tell any stories about where this came from, and this belonged to your great-grandmother, and you know, so what happened to my life? It’s gone,” one of the people displaced explained in a survey conducted for the assessment.

Researchers collected data in three ways: through an online survey, interviews with community leaders and subject matter experts and through focus group interviews.

Marc Braverman, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at OSU and one of the authors of the study, said of all the problems wildfire survivors face, mental health was mentioned most frequently.

One of the recommendations in the assessment was to increase the number of mental health providers in the area.

Mental health was just one of the areas highlighted in the study. The authors also looked at environmental health, housing, food security and personal health.

Braverman said Marion County commissioned the study to better understand issues that have persisted in the canyon. The county spent $47,500 in state grant funds to finance the study.

Of the 80 people who responded to the survey, 86% said they had to move to temporary housing because of the wildfires. More than half of those people are still living in temporary conditions.

It’s been 16 months since the wildfires and Braverman said, “These things are felt for a very long time. It takes a long time for these problems to play out and resolve. Longer than people would expect.”

People surveyed said they had difficulties getting reimbursed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, citing a long and frustrating process. Others gave up after having to apply multiple times.

Following the 2020 wildfire season more than 24,000 Oregonians applied for FEMA assistance and about 57% were denied, Jefferson Public Radio reported.

One respondent described it this way: “It’s literally a roller coaster that you have to live 15 times over. Because each agency wants verification. ‘Oh, what happened? Now we’ve got to verify that you’ve lost your stuff. Now, show me documentation that you lost your stuff, and how much it was worth,’ and this and that. And then, ‘Oh, we need to see it again and again and again.’ And I mean, you give up. You give up after the fourth time.”

Others have faced issues rebuilding because of high construction costs, the assessment noted. Just 53% of the 694 homes impacted by the wildfires have been issued septic permits, one indicator of rebuilding progress.

The assessment recommends advocating for steps to “reduce bureaucracy and redundancy and to streamline residents’ experiences with regard to insurance and reimbursements.” It also said to waive permit fees and appraisals in the permitting process for a less tedious experience for residents.

In September, Marion County commissioners authorized 10-months of property tax relief for properties damaged in the wildfire. Last year, the board waived building permit fees for primary residences in the canyon and septic permit fees.

During the 2021 legislative session, legislators passed a bill that allowed homes and other structures built under older land-use laws to be rebuilt to those standards instead of newer ones.

People reported being worried about their drinking water and air quality.  

About 72% of those surveyed felt they had been impacted by issues associated with air quality within the last year.

“I think everybody’s lungs took a huge hit too. I know my lungs are awful. I haven’t felt well since the fire, literally. Our house didn’t burn. But I have air filters in there that I change every other week that are black. And I am breathing that,” one respondent said.

About half of the people surveyed said they believed they had been exposed to toxins or contaminants within the last year.

It took seven months to restore Detroit’s drinking water because contaminated lines had to be replaced and city officials were already looking at replacing the system before the wildfires hit. Many didn’t have running water until a year after the wildfires, the assessment said.

“They finally got a temporary water plant and now we have potable water. A lot of people still won’t drink it,” one respondent said.

Another said they saw runoff creating problems.

“Well, I live right up the Little North Fork, and we’ve already seen stuff on the runoff coming down … and it’s muddying up the water. This watershed’s not gonna be the same for a decade at least. All the runoff, all the mud that’s gonna come down from these rains from all this timber, and the timber that’s still there, just waiting for a good rainy day to let loose along the river and float down and cause mayhem.”

The assessment recommended sampling ash and dust for toxic chemicals and evaluating water sources not impacted by the wildfires for exposure and risk.

The lack of tree cover and shade had some residents feeling last summer’s heat wave acutely.

“It’s hot, it’s stressful, I mean 115 degrees in an RV? The AC does not work and you have nowhere to hide … It’s just going to be quite hot for a while. Even if you don’t have those scorching degree temperature days like Detroit, or the canyon goes back to normal where it’s more like it reaches 104 and then it goes back down to 90 and 80,” one survey taker said.

Another said they were grappling with how the wildfire would shape the climate in the area for years to come. “Clearly, the microclimate in the canyon is going to be different for the rest of our lives, and adjusting to the expectations of heat, the lack of shade, what it means for the fish – there’s a lot of environmental change. And so, adjusting our expectations to that is a really big part of it. There’s a deep sort of mental health component to this for me.”

Braverman said the most actionable ways of dealing with these problems is addressing housing. He said it remains to be seen whether all the people who were displaced will return to the canyon or find a home elsewhere.

“Patterns of re-settling are going to be is something we’re going to have to wait to find out,” he said. “There are disruptions not only to people forced out of their homes, but to entire communities. How are communities going to change?”

This article was updated to reflect property tax relief offered by Marion County and the amount the county spent on the study.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]. 

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