1 year after fire: Otis families ‘just want to set up our home’

Special Reports

It's been a year since the Echo Mountain Fire impacted Otis and some residents are still displaced

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It’s been a year since Rachelle McMaster and her family lost their home in the Echo Mountain Complex Fire and now, they’re on the verge of losing housing again. 

After a month of searching for housing after the fire, McMaster felt lucky when she found an apartment to lease. But now, her funds are running out.

“I had FEMA money, I had tax money, and that’s what was paying rent, and now I don’t have any of that, and I don’t make enough to cover the rent,” she said. “That’s the situation right now and I don’t know what’s going on with my trailer court.”

McMaster and her two teenage children lived in the Salmon River Mobile Village, just off Highway 18 in Otis. Nearly all the homes in the village were leveled in the Echo Mountain Complex Fire, which devastated the Otis community. 

“I literally walked into the park and I was speechless. I looked around and where my neighborhood, my community, my family had been, there was absolutely nothing,” McMaster said, remembering the moment she first returned to the site of her home. 

McMaster settled into her Lincoln City apartment in October, thinking it would be a temporary housing situation before she and her kids could move back to Otis. In January, she received notice that the owner of the mobile village, Patricia Heringer, intended to sell the property and had received an offer she intended to consider. 

Salmon River Mobile Village mailbox site – photo taken Aug. 29, 2021. (KOIN)

At first, McMaster said she didn’t panic. She thought whoever bought the property would still use it as a mobile home park. 

Now, nearly eight months after receiving that notice, McMaster hasn’t heard any updates and is starting to think she won’t have an option to return home, after all. 

“Limbo is a good way to put it. We’re lost because we don’t know where home is now,” McMaster said. 

Kathy Deeds, another displaced resident of the Salmon River Mobile Village, said she feels the exact same way. She says on the one-year anniversary of the Echo Mountain Complex Fire, all she’s thinking about is how badly she wants to go home. 

“We loved our home and that was our, you know, that’s where all my grandbabies played,” she said. “We just assumed we’d be coming back.” 

Kathy Deeds, her husband Jeff and their son Josh bounced between hotels for months before they moved into FEMA housing in March. The housing will be available to them until March 2022. After that, Deeds doesn’t know what they’ll do. 

Photo shows what remains of the Deedses’ family home after the Echo Mountain Complex Fire. Photo courtesy Kathy Deeds

Like Rachelle McMaster, Kathy Deeds and her family thought they’d be able to move back to the Salmon River Mobile Village. On Dec. 26, 2020, the family placed an order for a new manufactured home. A month later, they received the notice that Heringer was entertaining an offer on the property. 

The Deeds family is still waiting on their manufactured home. Jeff Deeds was out of work for 14 months. He’s since been employed for eight months, but Kathy says without proof of two-year employment, they haven’t been approved for a loan for their home. 

“We’re very grateful. We’re not saying we’re not grateful [for FEMA housing]. We just want to be able to set up our home again,” Deeds said. 

McMaster and Deeds said their homes weren’t insured. McMaster said she’s tried contacting Heringer, asking her to write a statement to confirm McMaster rented from her, so she can get FEMA assistance. McMaster said Heringer has not returned her emails. 

Kathy Deeds and her family have been living in FEMA housing in Lincoln City since March, 2021. Photo taken Aug. 29, 2021. (KOIN)

KOIN 6 News also tried calling and emailing Heringer to ask what would happen to the Salmon River Mobile Village property. She did not return our messages. 

Oregon Housing and Community Services confirmed it was working with the low-income housing organization called Housing Works and looked at the mobile home park as a potential option for housing. The organization contacted Heringer saying they were interested in making an offer on the property but said the owner told them there was a sale pending and no other offer would be considered.   

Despite the challenging year, Rachelle McMaster says there have been bright spots. Her 16-year-old daughter Rose graduated high school from her boarding school, Milo Adventist Academy, a year early. 

She did this even after the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to take classes from home – a place where the internet connection wasn’t stable and things felt very chaotic. 

“It’s just shown me that when you focus you can get things done, and that even though things changed you should still keep going towards goals,” Rose said. 

Rose and her family’s uncertain housing situation isn’t stopping her desire to help others. She’s currently in the process of raising money to put together 100 bags for foster care children for her Girl Scout Gold Award project. 

Rachelle McMaster says both of her kids have been amazing this past year. She said they’ve kept her going at times when she felt hopeless. 

“I’m still having a hard time like wrapping my brain around the fact that we haven’t been home for a year,” she said. 

In the distance sits the property where the Salmon River Mobile Village was once located in Otis. Photo taken Aug. 29, 2021. (KOIN)

She said people are still very raw and emotional, one year after losing nearly everything. 

Kathy Deeds is proof of that. She still tears up thinking about how traumatic the past year has been. 

“When you rent a manufactured home park, in the back of your mind, you know, that’s a property that you’re renting. You know you may have to move. But when you lose your home overnight… and to be displaced almost a year, it’s really unfair,” she said. 

For now, the two women are supporting each other and their other neighbors from the Salmon River Mobile Village. They’re still waiting for answers on what’s to come of their former home. Although it’s been a year since the fire, their nightmare isn’t over. 

The Deeds family and the McMasters family are still accepting donations through their GoFundMe accounts.

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