Thousands of Californians had to evacuate their homes in August as wildfires tore through the state. With only their families and a few cherished possessions in tow, evacuees had to make difficult choices about where to seek shelter.
Many have been in this position in past fire seasons, but now there’s a new factor to consider while fleeing: the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
“As people are considering evacuation, social distancing and masking and hand washing become extra important,” said Dr. Stephanie Christenson, a pulmonologist at the University of California, San Francisco. But she added, taking those precautions while sheltering with others can be tricky.
“If people can evacuate to places where they don’t have to do that, where they don’t have to be together in a communal situation, that’s ideal.”
But staying with friends and family also becomes complicated during the pandemic, when health officials are asking people to limit contact with those outside of their own home.
The state is putting emergency funding toward creating safer alternatives.
“We’ve been this year emphasizing using hotels, motels where we can keep family units together but they’re separate from other folks,” said Brian Ferguson with the state’s Office of Emergency Services.
When Dori Anderson in Winters received evacuation orders during the LNU Lightning Complex Fire last month, she quickly sprayed her house down with water, readied her animals, and assessed where to go next.
She’d heard there was an evacuation center open in Vacaville, but she was worried about contracting COVID-19 by being in close quarters with other people from Solano County.
“Solano county definitely had higher numbers than Winters did, and I’m 64 years old,” she said.
“So I wasn’t willing to take that risk of being around people in chaos that might not be thinking straight.”
The first night, her family went to a public park where they felt they’d be a safe distance from the fire. They were able to stay apart from others there, Anderson said, but their dogs were getting hot.
They ultimately chose to stay with family in West Sacramento for a few days until they could return to their home, which was spared from the fire. While they were guests, Anderson says they tried not to potentially expose their hosts.
“We had masks, and we set up separate places,” she said. “We tried our best.”
For Elk Grove resident Sharon Larsen, the recent fires brought an urgent request from a pair of friends whose house had burned down. She said COVID-19 came to mind right away.
“We just figured we could be really careful about it and hope for the best,” she said. “But you can’t tell people ‘no’ in a situation like that.”
Larsen suggests that other hosts of wildfire evacuees ask their guests in advance to bring and wear masks — when hers showed up, they weren’t wearing them.
“Once they were here, it was like, ‘Is it now too late to say you can’t come if you don’t wear a mask’?”
Larsen’s guests recently returned to their Vacaville property.
Here are a few scenarios you might end up in during wildfire season, and how to minimize your COVID-19 risk:
If you’re preparing to evacuate:
- Pack a bag before a fire starts. Emergency officials recommend all Californians be prepared to leave in the event of a fire. Here are a few different packing lists.
- California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
- California Fire Prevention Organization
- San Diego Regional Fire Foundation
- FIRESafe Marin
- What To Pack In Your Emergency Bag — With COVID-19 In Mind
- Check with your local government emergency groups, such as the county and the fire department, for updates. You can find a list of relevant incident pages and social media accounts here.
- Make an emergency plan with your family in advance. This might include picking a meeting place, mapping routes out of your neighborhood and creating a list of families to contact in the event of an evacuation. Cal Fire details how to make an emergency plan here.
If you’re headed to a shelter:
- Dr. Stephanie Christenson, the UCSF pulmonologist, recommends taking the following precautions at an emergency evacuation shelter:
- Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth at all times. If you must take your mask off to eat, do so away from people outside your immediate household.
- Consider wearing eye protection, such as safety glasses, if there’s a likelihood you’ll be within six feet of someone outside your immediate household.
- Avoid singing, chanting, yelling or partaking in other activities that could expel additional particles within an indoor setting.
- Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer frequently.
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created guidelines for “Going To A Public Disaster Shelter During The COVID-19 Pandemic”.
If you’re staying with a loved one or if you’re hosting evacuees:
- Cal Fire recommends asking friends or relatives outside your area in advance whether you can stay with them if the need arises. Check with relatives about whether they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have people in their home at higher risk for serious illness. If so, make other arrangements.
- If you must host or have a guest, public health officials recommend interacting outdoors and six feet apart whenever possible, wearing masks indoors, washing hands frequently and avoiding touching the same household items without sanitizing in between.
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