Analysis of Almeda Fire Impact Area with Census On-the-Map

by Guy Tauer

September 23, 2020

The scope of the disaster that struck Jackson County on September 8, 2020 was unfathomable and unprecedented, as an urban core wildfire swept along the Bear Creek Valley from North Ashland nearly into Medford. At last published count, 2,537 residences and about 100 businesses were razed in the wind-whipped inferno in about a half of a day. The loss of life was tragic, and the property and personal losses are incalculable. It is estimated that 4,000 individuals are now displaced, living in hotels, the Jackson County Expo, with friends or family, or somewhere else in or possibly out of the Rogue Valley. And while the focus is on the Jackson County area, let’s keep in our thoughts our neighbors just over the border in Happy Camp, CA, where another 150 homes were lost this summer. As the black smoke filled the Rogue Valley, the same winds were fanning the flames in many other parts of the west during the catastrophic end to what had been a relatively docile summer for wildfire in Oregon. We are not alone in our suffering, but we have seen some of the worst of what the summer of 2020 had to offer.

My wife has taught for nearly three decades in the school district where the fire’s bullseye was and where about one-half of all students lost their homes. I coach the girl’s high school tennis team in the town where 80 percent of the elementary school students lost their homes. Six of the 11 girls on our tennis team lost a family home to the fire. Without hitting my home directly, this tragedy hits home in so many other ways. My heart especially hurts for the traditionally underserved, those without much to begin with, and the seniors who also make up about one out of four of the residents of the fire-impacted area. Where will they go? How will they ever replace that long-paid-off mobile home in a bucolic, tidy park tucked in groves of cottonwood ponderosa pine trees?  Those may not be rebuilt in an era of adherence to newly plotted flood plain maps, stricter building and development codes, and of course all of the added costs that those requirements undoubtedly add to the final price tags.

I know families who already have insurance settlements for their home and contents in the bank. I know families who lost literally everything – with nothing insured. I can’t even think about the numbers and data about the impact without playing stories of near escape from fire and flames that I heard first hand from many already. One of my tennis players escaped due to a friend’s text that the fire was at the door of their mobile home park. She got out with the tassel from her recent graduation cap, a medallion from an art class, and the clothes on her back. I’ve never seen such collective pain and also collective effort to come together to salve the deep wounds caused by recent wildfires. 

We can evaluate characteristics of the population, workers, and jobs within the impact area of the fire using the Census Bureau’s OnTheMap for Emergency Management tool, found at: https://onthemap.ces.census.gov/em/. While the map is pretty good, it still can’t decipher exactly what may have survived and what was leveled, but does give us a general guide on who was in the path of the firestorm. Data regarding general demographic traits of the population are mostly from the American Community Survey (ACS) 2014-2018 estimates. So this is a slightly older information, but is the most current for these small areas.

Workforce

Information about the workers who live within the Almeda fire impact area show there were 1,889 workers who lived in that area in 2017 – the source of the workforce information from OnTheMap. Of those workers, about one-half were age 30 to 54 and 27 percent were 55 and older. Workers age 29 and younger composed about one-quarter of workers in the fire impact zone. About one-quarter of the workers in the area had either a high school diploma or equivalent, or had some college or an associate degree. Nearly 18 percent of workers in the fire impact area had a bachelor’s degree or advanced degree. One out of 10 percent had less than a high school education, according to Census estimates.

Workers by race data show between one percent and two percent of workers were Black or African American Alone; or American Indian or Alaska Native Alone; or Asian Alone. Workers by ethnicity show 17 percent of area workers were Hispanic or Latino and 83 percent were Not Hispanic or Latino. In 2017, about 325 workers who lived in the affected area were employed in both health care and social assistance, and retail trade, both about 17 percent of the total. About 190 local workers had jobs in accommodation and food services in 2017, accounting for 10 percent of the total workers in the area.

About 1,300 workers were employed in the Almeda fire impact area in 2017. The industries with the most jobs with the impact area were retail trade (220); agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (180); construction (172); accommodation and food services (103); and manufacturing (103).
Almost one out of three housing units were mobile homes in the fire impacted area, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Nearly one out of four who lived in this area were age 65 and older, and of those seniors, four out of 10 lived alone. The overall poverty rate estimate in the 2014-2018 ACS estimates for the fire impacted area was 16.5 percent. About one out of five residents were estimated to have a disability, and of those with a disability, about 19 percent had income below the poverty level. Another challenge going forward is the age of the housing stock that was lost. An estimated 80 percent of the homes in the impact area were constructed before 2010, which means asbestos may be more of a health issue in cleaning fire debris and readying lots for eventual reconstruction.

Once we have a clear picture of the exact businesses now closed due to loss of their physical business, we can estimate the total recent payroll and employment figures for the affected area. We’ll never be able to tabulate the full cost to the region and so many of its residents caused by the Almeda fire.


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