California wildfire season is starting earlier and lasting longer than ever before. While 2019 has been a particularly flame-ridden year, the state was better prepared this time than it has been in the past. Still, emergency wildfire evacuations present particularly difficult challenges for people with disabilities.
So far this year, 6,190 fire incidents have burned almost 200K acres of the Golden State, damaged or destroyed 732 structures, evacuated thousands from their homes and caused three fatalities, according to DisasterPhilanthropy.org.
While scientists, public utility leaders and policy makers sort out how they’ll keep the state’s 40 million residents and 33 million acres of forest safe in the future, we at BlastPoint have been wondering how Californians with mobility limitations have handled so many emergency evacuations.
Physical and cognitive disabilities present extreme challenges during emergencies
For anyone who relies on a ventilator or dialysis machine to survive; who has a hearing or vision impairment and needs special emergency notifications in the event of danger; who uses a wheelchair, scooter, walker or cane to move around; who struggles with dementia; who has an acute decision-making challenge or difficulty prioritizing under stress, emergency evacuations present extremely difficult situations.
“Even with the best warning notification systems and strategic plans,” says writer and wheelchair user Alice Wong in her piece in San Fransisco Curbed, “people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted during natural disasters.”
In extreme weather events across the U.S. throughout 2017 and 2018, Wong cites, people reported incidences where nursing home residents were not evacuated, where people with disabilities showed up to emergency shelters but were turned away because their level of need was too high; where people who relied on electronic machines for survival experienced power outages; where information failed to be relayed in accessible manner, and more harrowing reports.
According to the Sacramento Bee, “Many of the at least 85 people who perished in the raging Camp Fire on Nov. 8  were elderly, infirm or disabled.”
As the one-year anniversary of that catastrophic fire has just passed, we wanted to know how many senior citizens and people with disabilities remain at risk in California. So, for November’s Map of the Month, we’re taking a geographic look at where all of these fires have been raging, and exploring some demographics to understand the risks to human survival.
The map above, courtesy of the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection, shows the regions where fire incidents have taken place across California this year alone.
The map below, created using BlastPoint’s Maps tool, shows some revealing demographics about the particular region of Tehama County, where the Ranch Fire, one of the eight largest California wildfires this year, has burned 2,500 acres, as of Nov. 4.
With slightly over 60K residents total in this North-Central California area, we found it staggering to learn that a full 20 percent of people there live with disabilities, and that 17 percent are over age 65.
While we didn’t delve into details like what types of disabilities those are, exactly, and how many of those seniors still drive or even own cars (which would make evacuation for them more straightforward), this is a lot of people who may need extra assistance during a wildfire evacuation. Which adds a higher level of care for area hospitals, senior and community centers, and nursing facilities.
Below are two more heatmaps, showing numbers for Mariposa and L.A. Counties, which also reveal stark percentages of people who could be more prone to risk during disaster evacuations.
As policy makers and other leaders continue to improve upon wildfire containment strategies in the future, we know that datasets like these prove to be extremely valuable tools leaders can use to learn what’s happening with the humans on the ground, neighborhood by neighborhood.
It’s a testament to California’s preparedness plans this year that it experienced so few fatalities (3) compared with recent years (6 in 2017; 85 in 2018). Three cheers for the first responders who successfully beat back so many fires this season, and for keeping Californians safe.
Keep up the amazing work!
For more in-depth reading on wildfires and extreme weather evacuations for people with disabilities, we came across a TON of really interesting resources in our research. Below are links to just a few:
“Many of the dead in Camp Fire were disabled, elderly. Could they have been saved?” (The Sacramento Bee: Tony Biziak, Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks, Phillip Reese, & Molly Sullivan)
This Time, Southern California was Prepared (USA Today, Chris Woodyard)
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