'We didn't have a plan': Disabled people struggle to evacuate from wildfires

A fire crew battling the Dixie Fire near Taylorsville, California, on Aug 9, 2021.
A fire crew battling the Dixie Fire near Taylorsville, California, on Aug 9, 2021.PHOTO: NYTIMES

CALIFORNIA (NYTIMES) - A mandatory evacuation notice blared from Ms 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.

Mr Chuck Lindahl, her brother-in-law, is paralysed 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 was not 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 Joyce 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.

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 organisations 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 Ms 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 Joyce 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 Chuck Lindahl's home, and his family was able to transport him to a rehabilitation and nursing centre in a nearby county.

Shelters are another concern. Some counties in Northern California do not 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.

Evacuees are also staying longer in shelters - another challenge for those with disabilities, who can have complex medical needs that are not 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.

Mr Chuck Lindahl, who is paralysed from the neck down, at his home in Chester, California, on Sept 3, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

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 Mr Brad Kieserman, vice-president for disaster operations and logistics at the organisation.

Out of 2,059 community health centres throughout California, an analysis by Direct Relief, a non-profit humanitarian organisation, shows that 61 per cent lack a form of backup power. In Butte County, there are no community health centres 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 spokesman, Jaclyn Rothenberg, said that under President Joe Biden, the agency was focused on strengthening its relationships with disability organisations as a way of improving preparedness.

Similarly, California is encouraging state officials to meet regularly with disability organisations, according to Vance Taylor, chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs at the state's emergency services agency.

Such organisations can offer expertise and assistance during evacuations - including by providing power wheelchairs, motorised lifts, ventilators or other supplies. As a result of guidance from local disability organisations, 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.

Mr Charles Nutt, who has an intellectual disability, stands on the lot of his former home, which was destroyed by the Camp Fire in 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Charles Nutt, 46, learnt 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."