Dozens of wind-driven wildfires race through more than a dozen western U.S. states.
SALEM, Ore. – Fearing one disaster will feed another, relief groups are putting some people who fled their homes during the West Coast wildfires into hotels to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, stringing up shower curtains to separate people in group shelters and delivering box lunches instead of setting up buffets.
Large disaster response organizations such as the American Red Cross still operate traditional shelters in gyms and churches, where they require masks, clean and disinfect often and try to keep evacuees at least 6 feet apart. The groups said they can reduce the risk of COVID-19 in a shelter.
“The last thing we want to have happen is people to remain in the path of a wildfire or hurricane because they think it’s safer to do that than risk a shelter,” said Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross.
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Mary Thomson, left, from Phoenix gets assistance from Salvation Army officer Tawnya Stumpf at an evacuation center set up at the Jackson County Fairgrounds on Sept. 12 in Central Point, Ore. Wildfires have devastated the region. (Photo: Paula Bronstein, AP)
Kathy Gee, 68, who has diabetes and other conditions that make her vulnerable to the virus, fled her farm in Molalla, Oregon, where wildfires made the hillside grow red, for a shelter in Portland.
“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. I’m tough,” she said of COVID-19. “I’ve survived lots of things. I can survive that.”
It can be difficult for people reeling from a disaster to consistently follow rules on the virus.
At the Oregon State Fairgrounds in the capital of Salem, maskless evacuees gathered in a parking lot and a barn Friday, talking about the unprecedented wildfires that destroyed an area bigger than Rhode Island. Volunteers wearing disposable masks walked from group to group, taking down information and asking what they needed for the days ahead.
Safety guidelines for both wildfires and the pandemic plastered the doors of the exposition center, where cots were set up. Inside, nearly everyone wore masks after volunteers manning the door reminded them to do so.
The fires in California, Oregon and Washington state have killed several people and sent 6,300 to emergency Red Cross shelters and hotels. As many as 50,000 more could need shelter before the blazes are under control, Kieserman said.
Normally, they’d gather in school gymnasiums and meeting halls, sleep on cots and eat at buffet lines provided by the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other faith and community groups. Because COVID-19 is easily spread in close quarters, gathering places are potential hotbeds of transmission. That’s got disaster assistance groups taking a different approach.
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The Red Cross screens evacuees, and those who are sick or have symptoms are sent to isolation shelters and kept away from one another. When possible, displaced residents are sent to hotels instead of group shelters. Instead of buffet lines, box lunches are delivered.
“We’re not using a gym, we’re renting a hotel room at $120 a night. And hotels charge for parking – it’s all those things you never think about during a disaster,” Kieserman said.
In central California, where thousands of residents had to flee the Creek Fire, more than 1,200 evacuees are staying at 30 hotels, said Tony Briggs with the Red Cross in Fresno. In group shelters, staffers use plastic pipes strung with clear shower curtains that separate evacuees but allow them to see out from their socially distanced areas.
Evacuations of this scale are incredibly difficult, said Karl Kim, executive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center, which trains first responders.
He said evacuees either leave early and quickly or they aren’t as mobile and require help getting out. The latter group may include people with health challenges, older people or pet owners who may not want to evacuate.
They might decide to wait it out longer and are more likely to need shelters, said Kim, who directs the Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance Program at the University of Hawaii. Some of them could be at greater risk of COVID-19 complications.
In Oregon, group shelters are set up at churches, colleges and community buildings, while malls, golf courses and other businesses opened parking for evacuees who can stay in recreational vehicles.
It will probably be weeks before officials know if the evacuations contributed to the virus spreading, and even then, it may be difficult to tell as families scatter to new locations.
“Contract tracing is really critical during a pandemic, and just because there’s a wildfire, all of the needs associated with contract tracing don’t just go away,” Kim said. “I think it’s more complicated because of the urgent nature of the evacuation. We don’t have good systems for this; nonetheless, we need to do that tracking. That’s the ongoing public health challenge.”
Some lessons may be learned from Louisiana, which had high rates of COVID-19 when a hurricane hit in late August.
Louisiana used its “Megashelter,” a facility spanning more than 200,000 square feet that’s designed to hold nearly 4,000 evacuees, for those with special medical needs during Hurricane Laura. Others got help finding hotel rooms and vouchers to cover the cost. Louisiana health officials offer evacuees mobile COVID-19 testing.
Boone reported from Boise, Idaho.
Contributing: Lindsay Whitehurst in Portland, Oregon, and Suman Naishadham in Phoenix
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