Disabled People Struggle to Evacuate From Wildfires

In Northern California, a region troubled by fire, many people with disabilities live in rural areas that lack the resources to support them during disasters.

Chuck Lindahl in his living room at his home in Chester, Calif.Credit…Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times

‘We Didn’t Have a Plan’: Disabled People Struggle to Evacuate From Wildfires

In Northern California, a region troubled by fire, many people with disabilities live in rural areas that lack the resources to support them during disasters.

Chuck Lindahl in his living room at his home in Chester, Calif.Credit…Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times

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A mandatory evacuation notice blared from Joyce Lindahl’s phone one day in July as the Dixie fire bore down on her home in Northern California. But her biggest concern was an hour away.

Chuck Lindahl, her brother-in-law, is paralyzed from the neck down, and his professional caregivers live in places where residents had already been ordered to evacuate. If his family also had to leave the area, he would be left alone. “Without caregivers, I’m out of luck,” he said.

Plumas County had a plan for Mr. Lindahl in case of fire, but his home wasn’t in the mandatory evacuation zone yet — and officials needed to focus their limited personnel and rescue equipment elsewhere, the county’s Office of Emergency Services said.

So Ms. Lindahl and her family scrambled to figure out how to safely evacuate her brother-in-law and shelter him on their own.

As wildfires burn with greater size and intensity across the American West, forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes each year, communities in the danger zone are struggling to protect their disabled and older residents.

This is a particular problem in Northern California, where some of the biggest blazes are now burning, including the Dixie fire, the second largest in state history. The region is home to a significant population of people with disabilities — the percentage in the area is roughly twice the state average — many of whom live in largely rural areas that lack the critical infrastructure and resources needed to support them during disasters.

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A wildland fire crew hosed down a structure to protect it as the Dixie Fire exploded on Diamond Mountain Road near Taylorsville, Calif., last month.Credit…Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times

The Camp fire wiped out the town of Paradise in 2018, killing at least 85 people — the majority of whom were older or disabled, according to Butte County data. The next year, a state audit found that the county, which includes Paradise, had not adequately prepared to protect people with “access and functional needs,” and that the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services had not provided enough guidance to local officials about how to develop emergency plans for them.

Since then, a growing number of California communities have partnered with local disability organizations to develop better plans to alert, evacuate and shelter vulnerable populations. But plenty of weak spots remain, and officials acknowledge that many people could still find themselves in danger.

“We tell people the most important thing is you need to have a plan for yourself,” said Shelby Boston, director of the Butte County Department of Employment and Social Services, which works with people with disabilities. “Even with all of the plans that the county put in place, there is no guarantee that a deputy or law enforcement or fire personnel is going to make it to your door. That’s the reality.”

Because of his condition, Mr. Lindahl needed a special van in order to evacuate — but his had been stolen a few weeks before the fire.

After spending all day on the phone with Plumas County emergency management officials to try to get a new vehicle to evacuate her brother-in-law, Ms. Lindahl said she received an unexpected call: Someone had found the stolen van in San Jose, five hours away, and reported it to the police.

A family friend drove the van to Mr. Lindahl’s home, and his family was able to transport him to a rehabilitation and nursing center in a nearby county.

Shelters are another concern. Some counties in Northern California don’t have assisted-living facilities that could care for someone like Mr. Lindahl. Many of the shelters across the region are older and lack needed features like ramps, backup power sources or accessible bathrooms.

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People were stuck in traffic after mandatory evacuations were put in place in South Lake Tahoe late last month.Credit…Christian Monterrosa/EPA, via Shutterstock

Evacuees are also staying longer in shelters — another challenge for those with disabilities, who can have complex medical needs that aren’t fully met in a shelter. Data from the American Red Cross shows that from 2014 to 2018, the average length of time that someone evacuating from a large disaster spent in a shelter was about 19 days. But in the past few years, that average has increased to about 30 days. After the Camp fire, shelters were open for 100 days.

Because of this, the Red Cross has focused on making long-term infrastructure investments such as backup solar power, disaster training and backup battery installation for people who rely on electricity for their medical devices in hard-hit places like Northern California, said Brad Kieserman, the vice president for disaster operations and logistics at the organization.

Out of 2,059 community health centers throughout California, an analysis by Direct Relief, a nonprofit humanitarian organization, shows that 61 percent lack a form of backup power. In Butte County, there are no community health centers with backup power, the analysis found.

The challenge of evacuating and caring for people with disabilities is not new. A large number of the more than 1,800 people killed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were older and disabled.

In response, Congress passed a law in 2006 requiring the Federal Emergency Management Agency to appoint a disability coordinator and develop guidelines to better serve people with disabilities. However, an accountability report published in 2019 showed that the agency had failed to provide comprehensive disability training to its staff. And the agency’s emergency preparedness report that year made no mention of those with disabilities.

A FEMA spokeswoman, Jaclyn Rothenberg, said that under President Biden, the agency was focused on strengthening its relationships with disability organizations as a way of improving preparedness.

Similarly, California is encouraging state officials to meet regularly with disability organizations, according to Vance Taylor, chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs at the state’s emergency services agency. Such organizations can offer expertise and assistance during evacuations — including by providing power wheelchairs, motorized lifts, ventilators or other supplies.

As a result of guidance from local disability organizations, Plumas County has set up an emergency transportation service for anyone who has a disability or who otherwise cannot drive, and Butte County now keeps a list of people who may need help in a crisis and sends law enforcement deputies to their homes during evacuations.

Carolyn Nava, an advocate with the nonprofit Disability Action Center, which serves Northern California, said that her organization has been running its own emergency response training. Fires can be unpredictable, she said, with each one having its own “fingerprint,” which makes it extremely difficult for both organizations and individuals to plan and prepare.

“You learn so much with each fire,” she said. “There’s absolutely no way to look at all possible elements.”

For example, one person Ms. Nava’s organization serves needed a backup battery for a medical device because of a power outage from the Dixie fire. The fire had cut off the center’s access route, so the center had to figure out a way to get the person safely to a hotel instead.

“The scope of what we are engaged in in this territory is beyond comprehension and the solutions are not going to be easy,” Ms. Nava said. “The solutions in many cases are still being resolved, still being talked about.”

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Charles Nutt at the lot of his former home, which burned in the Camp fire in Paradise, Calif.Credit…Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times

Charles Nutt, 46, learned during the Camp fire in 2018 that he was not prepared to evacuate. Mr. Nutt, who has an intellectual disability, rushed to grab his clothes and medications just as towering flames took over his street in Paradise. In the chaos of his escape alongside his stepson, who has autism, and six dogs, he forgot the machine that he needs to help him breathe while he sleeps.

“I was just praying to God that we would get through there,” he said. “We didn’t have a plan to get out.”

Since that fire, Mr. Nutt has attended emergency planning training and has started training other disabled individuals. He now has three go-bags packed at all times, emergency alerts set up on his phone, and a backup battery and generator for his breathing machine.

“I feel stronger that I know what to do in case of a fire,” Mr. Nutt said. “I won’t be scared next time, because I’ll be prepared.”

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