When he woke up early in the morning on September 8, 2020, the first thing that Michael Biggs noticed was the wind. It was stronger than he’d ever experienced in the area. The Southern Oregon air was hot and dry. He posted a message on Facebook warning neighbors of the risk of wildfire, and later left for a hike with his dogs. While he was gone, he got a text from his wife: She could see black smoke rising from the south.
“By the time I got home, it was a shitshow,” he says. Neighbors were standing in the street, watching the smoke get closer. There hadn’t been an official warning to evacuate. They knew that the fire would have to cross a river, four lanes of a highway, and six other subdivisions before getting to their block. But when a plane started dropping fire retardant nearby, they decided it was time to leave. Biggs and his wife grabbed their dogs and cats and a handful of paperwork and got in the car, heading to a friend’s house in a rural area.
Later, as they tracked the fire online, they found someone on Twitter who was livestreaming a block away from their house. “We saw our neighborhood burning down,” he says. Roughly half of Talent, the town of around 6,300 people where the couple had lived for 20 years, burned down. Seven hundred buildings were destroyed; a third of the residents lost their homes. It was one of a series of fires in the most destructive wildfire season in Oregon’s history.
While some residents moved away from the area, Biggs and his wife decided to rebuild. But they knew they wanted to build as efficiently as possible. “We believe that this fire was caused from climate change,” he says. “And we believe that the only solution is if we all do our part.”
His new house, now complete, is covered with solar panels. It also has the highest level of insulation possible. “Our house is pretty bare inside because we used all of our couch money and stuff on insulation,” he says. The house has a hybrid water heater, a charger for the electric car they plan to later buy, and electric heat pumps instead of a fossil-fueled furnace. The electric bill is now only $11 a month.
Dozens of other homeowners in Talent have also rebuilt their houses to be far more efficient than they were before the fire. Energy Trust, a nonprofit funded by Oregon utilities that offers incentives for energy efficiency and renewable power, says that out of 113 single-family homes in the city that have been rebuilt so far, 43 have participated in its programs. Many of the other homes lost in the fire were manufactured homes; the nonprofit also offers an incentive for mobile homeowners to replace their homes with more efficient models, though the process is slower, as residents have to coordinate with mobile home parks as they rebuild. The nonprofit had offered incentives before the fire, but few people participated. Now the area is one of the most active in the program in the state.
In the wake of the fire, the nonprofit has worked closely with the city, state, residents, and local contractors to make sure that people who lost homes knew that they could get support—up to around $8,000—for adding a variety of features to make their new homes more efficient, from better appliances to insulation and solar power. (The state offers additional incentives, up to a combined total of around $16,000.) Energy Trust also highlighted some features that could double as protection in future fires.
Triple-paned windows, for example, help save energy in heating and cooling a house, but also add an extra layer of protection from the heat of a fire. They also help keep the air cleaner if there’s wildfire smoke outside. “As we’re talking, I am in Southern Oregon, and I’m sitting in [an air quality rating] from smoke that’s closing in on 300,” says Karen Chase, an outreach manager at Energy Trust. “So this is an ongoing event for us. We know that there are more coming. This happens every summer. And the indoor air quality piece is really becoming increasingly critical.”
If an attic is designed without vents, insulation near the roof can help save energy, and the lack of vents also means that embers from a fire can’t easily blow into the house. A layer of rigid insulation near the outside of the walls also saves energy, and the material is flame resistant.
The process of rebuilding has been challenging, not surprisingly. Debris cleanup took months. Residents have had to deal with their insurance companies, find a temporary place to live, and work through the paperwork and expense of new construction. “Throughout all those months, the cost of construction materials continued to escalate,” says Chase. “You also still pay your mortgage on the burned-down house,” says Biggs.
Some of the people hit hardest by the fire also had the fewest resources to deal with it. The fire “very succinctly carved out our low-income housing,” says Darby Ayers-Flood, mayor of Talent. “That included several mobile home parks.” The city worked on temporary solutions, including transitional housing in RVs. But the disaster also led to some more permanent changes. Nonprofits purchased one of the mobile home parks, where many of the residents were Latino families working in agriculture and other low-wage jobs, and converted it into a resident-owned coop.
As rebuilding continues, nearly 100 other homeowners are in the process of using the energy incentives to make their new homes more efficient. There’s a climate benefit, but it’s also going to save residents money. “We know that this [type of] home is going to cost less to live in,” says Scott Leonard, senior project manager at Energy Trust.
The shift in Talent is a smaller echo of what happened in Greensburg, Kansas, a tiny town that was destroyed by a tornado in 2007 and chose to rebuild differently. The town’s electricity is now 100% wind-powered. Rebuilt homes are energy efficient. City buildings are LEED certified; the local school has low-flow toilets and captures rainwater for irrigation.
Arguably, any post-disaster rebuild now needs to happen as sustainably as possible. But it’s especially critical in the West, says Chase. “For any community across the West, adapting to the changing climate must be preparing for longer, more intense fire seasons,” she says. “What we’ve found is that energy efficiency is key to fire resiliency. So, if communities put resiliency at the center of their rebuild plans, they’re not just making their community better prepared for the next fire, they’re significantly cutting their energy use, which has so many benefits. One of which is, of course, greater affordability.”