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'It's been a culture shift': Evacuation centers deal with wildfires and COVID-19

Redding Record Searchlight logo Redding Record Searchlight 8/21/2020 Damon Arthur and Angelaydet Rocha, Redding Record Searchlight
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The thousands of people evacuating from the wildfires burning across California are seeing something new this summer, and as with nearly every other aspect of their lives, the coronavirus drives it.

Pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing, shelter managers can no longer rely on large assembly halls at schools, fairgrounds and community centers to house wildfire evacuees.

What we know about the fires: 3-4 Fire now 15,250 acres; now called Elkhorn Fire

Rather than eating and sleeping in large, open rooms, many of those displaced are being sent to nearby hotels, said Nicole Maul, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, which operates numerous shelters up and down California in areas hit by wildfires.

a group of people standing next to a woman: A young girl plays next to her mother Mini Cho as they both wait to enter the evacuation center in the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Aug. 20, 2020. © David Rodriguez/The Salinas Californian A young girl plays next to her mother Mini Cho as they both wait to enter the evacuation center in the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Aug. 20, 2020.

She said the Red Cross has been giving priority to sending people to hotels over having them bunk overnight in large gathering rooms.

"They're noticing it's a little bit different than what they are used to seeing," Maul said. "It's been a culture shift for our country and the world."

Sheltering people amid COVID-19: 'The number one priority is life and safety'

With the onset of the coronavirus, the Red Cross has been working since January to plan for sheltering people displaced during the summer wildfire season. 

There are at least 23 major fires burning in California that have torched hundreds of thousands of acres and forced the evacuations of residents from Tehama County in the north to Riverside in the south.

a man standing in front of a building: Monterey County residents ask for information outside the evacuation center located at the Carmel Middle school on Aug. 20, 2020. © David Rodriguez/The Salinas Californian Monterey County residents ask for information outside the evacuation center located at the Carmel Middle school on Aug. 20, 2020.

Maia Carroll, a spokeswoman for Monterey County, said officials want to get people safely away from fires, but also make sure they stay safe at shelters.

“They need to bring face covering with them. They need to plan on social distancing and temperature checks are being done,” she said.

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The River Fire (33,653 acres) and the Carmel Fire (4,285 acres) are both burning in Monterey County.

“It’s a little complex when we have a life threatening situation right now. The number one priority is life and safety. In terms of COVID we want people to evacuate first and get to a safe location and then at that safe location we can continue with COVID precautions,” she said.

“Because of COVID, we can't just accept things being dropped off here (donations) so that’s something we are concerned about,” she said.

Sending fire-displaced residents to motels is not new for the Red Cross. The agency has been working with hotels across the state for many years on a smaller scale, Maul said.

Families burned out of their homes are regularly given vouchers to stay at nearby hotels, Maul said.

The agency continues to use congregate centers for housing wildfire evacuees, but center managers try to keep the number of residents lower at each location to increase social distancing.

That means the Red Cross has had to open more congregate centers with fewer evacuees, Maul said.

In years past, meals were served buffet style, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, evacuees are served packaged meals. And those staying at motels also are delivered packaged meals, she said.

a person holding a sign: Gibi Dominguez a Monterey County employee puts up a sign outside the evacuation center at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Aug. 20, 2020. © David Rodriguez/The Salinas Californian Gibi Dominguez a Monterey County employee puts up a sign outside the evacuation center at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Aug. 20, 2020.

Dr. Jahan Fahimi, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center said people are less likely to catch COVID if they stay at home or avoid large gatherings.

"Being in public indoors might not be in your best interest," he said.

Wildfire smoke, heat and COVID can take a toll on medically vulnerable

The risk of exposure to COVID-19 is just one of the concerns for people fleeing wildfires this summer, according to Dr. Stephanie Christenson, an assistant professor of medicine at UCSF Medical Center.

She said wildfire smoke, heat and COVID have created a "perfect storm" of risk for certain groups of people with underlying health problems.

The microscopic particles in wildfire smoke can irritate the tissue deep in the lungs and cause inflammation and infections, Christenson said. But this summer, Californians are facing an additional threat from the coronavirus.

"Now we've just given them another insult that can make matters worse," Christenson said.

The effects of wildfire smoke may make people more susceptible to COVID-19 and worsen their symptoms, she said.

People with underlying health problems such as heart disease, asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure are especially at risk for symptoms being further exacerbated by smoke and COVID, she said.

"These would be the groups that I would be particularly worried about," she said.

Christenson said that in addition to social distancing, shelter managers should also sanitize congregate areas and make sure residents wear masks and wash their hands regularly. 

Maul said before someone is allowed into an evacuation shelter they are given a temperature checks and asked whether they have had any symptoms or have been exposed to anyone with COVID-19.

a group of people walking down a sidewalk next to a building: Monterey County residents line up at the evacuation center located at the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Aug. 20, 2020. © David Rodriguez/The Salinas Californian Monterey County residents line up at the evacuation center located at the WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Aug. 20, 2020.

Helen Cosentino, a Red Cross Chapters program disaster specialist for San Benito and Merced counties, said some people, out of concern about the coronavirus, are avoiding evacuation centers.

“The fear people have of coming to places like this, we are taking precautions. But I know some people are fearful, some people are choosing to sleep in their cars,” said Cosentino, who was working at a shelter at Carmel Middle School.

Damon Arthur is the Record Searchlight’s resources and environment reporter. He is among the first on the scene at breaking news incidents, reporting real time on Twitter at @damonarthur_RS. Damon is part of a dedicated team of journalists who investigate wrongdoing and find the unheard voices to tell the stories of the North State. He welcomes story tips at 530-338-8834 and damon.arthur@redding.com. Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today!

This article originally appeared on Redding Record Searchlight: 'It's been a culture shift': Evacuation centers deal with wildfires and COVID-19

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