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Wildfire survivors struggle to get loans to rebuild

Brandon Kirk says he and his wife were turned down four times by FEMA and the Small Business Administration before getting help. Then other financial headaches began.

LYONS, Oregon – Survivors of the Santiam Canyon wildfires are in various stages of rebuilding. Some have been lucky enough to finish their new home while others have barely started. But some families now face unexpected financial hurdles.

Brandon Kirk and his wife are rebuilding their now fireproof home in Lyon.

“The first thing we did was go for a metal seam roof,” Kirk said as he showed KGW around his new home. “The doors are steel and the windows are tempered.”

Kirk’s property is on the banks of the Santiam River and it has come a long way after the devastating wildfire of 2020. He said his insurance company was excellent but he had issues with his mortgage company.

“Our problem was our mortgage company. I was insured for $185,000 and they took out $174,000. So I was left with $11,000 to rebuild the cost, plus cleanup,” Kirk said.

He and his wife were told they needed to seek help from FEMA and the Small Business Administration (SBA). He said an SBA representative visited the property and gave the go-ahead for a loan.

“He’s like, ‘Oh my God, you lost your house. You lost your store. We’ll give you $220,000, you know, like 1.18% interest,’ and I was like, ‘Awesome .’ My contractor said, ‘Oh, that should cover everything for your tiny 1,000 square foot house.’ So that’s what we worked on,” Kirk said.

Construction began quickly. But then came a financial rollercoaster.

“[We] was turned down by every organization, FEMA and SBA, four times before we got any real traction, and then we got a FEMA award a year after the fact. And then, literally 481 days later, we received funds from the SBA,” Kirk said.

KGW has heard from several families who have said the same thing, that they have been repeatedly denied FEMA assistance, even with the help of a disaster social worker.

Kirk said the awkward and frustrating process takes a mental and emotional toll on wildfire survivors.

“When you have to deal with the bureaucratic process of getting turned down four or five times before you get approved, and that’s a known issue, it gets really frustrating. I think, unfortunately, the mental health of a lot of people gets worse the longer it drags on,” he said.

RELATED: Tree planting underway in wildfire-hit Santiam State Forest

In Kirk’s case, he said that once he and his wife finally got help from FEMA, as well as help from local organizations and nonprofits, he said that there were more problems.

“The SBA came back saying, ‘No. So we’re going to take that FEMA award off your loan,” Kirk said. “It literally went from $220,000 to $50,000.”

That’s almost 80% less than what Kirk expected to get. The process was a headache for Kirk and his wife. He said that at one point he was told he would not get a loan at all. Kirk then had to rely on local organizations, such as the Santiam Services Integration Team (SIT), to give him money to pay off part of the $95,000 he owed his contractor at the time. He said he had shifted gears, trying to get loans from credit unions when he was contacted again.

“SBA comes out of nowhere and says […] we will give you a loan of $95,000,” he said.

The deal was that to get the money, Kirk would have to put the SBA on their house title. But then he had another surprise.

“On the day of the scattering, they [the SBA] come and say well, we’re only going to give you $50,000,” he said.

Kevin Wynne, public information officer for the SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance, said there’s a reason loan amounts fluctuate.

“The SBA requires that all amounts received from insurance, and which are available to the homeowner, be applied to disaster repairs,” Wynne said over the phone.

Wynne also said it was illegal for the SBA to duplicate any money received for recovery.

“We depend on it [money] to build the house and they don’t take into account that we had to do the cleaning. We had to, you know, rebuild the fence. We’re not rebuilding our 900 square foot cedar deck because we can’t afford it,” Kirk said, citing additional costs associated with fire recovery.

Melissa Baurer of the Santiam Services Integration Team, which helps wildfire survivors and connects them with disaster social workers, said other families face similar issues.

“They expected this loan to help them recover and they took that into account when they hired their contractor, and now they’re not getting that. [money]”, Baurer said.

In the meantime, Kirk is grateful for the help from Baurer and SIT. He said he was also grateful for state money helping him pay for his house because of the fire fighting measures he took. Kirk tries to stay positive even though he says he still owes his contractor $40,000.

“Melissa seems pretty confident that she’s going to come up with $40,000 one way or another and so we’ll see,” Kirk said.

He predicts that he will have to spend at least $10,000 more to insulate the drywall and finish the house. Kirk hopes the house will be finished in April. But for now, he knows that if there is another wildfire, his house should be safe.

“It will be a landslide, a meteor or a volcano. But it won’t be wildfire. I promise,” he said.

Kirk said residents of Santiam Canyon have been going through the same storm since 2020 but are in different boats.

“People still need help and that’s something to remember. We’re all still recovering and a lot of people aren’t as advanced as you see here,” he said.

“Like us […] encounter more and more disasters that have greater severity and greater impact on rural and urban Americans, it’s a broken system that we honestly need to fix.”