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In California wildfires, disabled people may be left behind

“Our lives are at stake and thoughts and prayers are not enough”

Multiple Wildfires Continue To Ravage California Wine Country Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

California is on fire. Right now, multiple wildfires are raging across the state, with the Camp Fire in Butte County affecting 125,000 acres and 30 percent contained (as of Tuesday) in the north, and Woolsey Fire in Ventura County resulting in the evacuation Malibu and Calabasas.

I am a wheelchair user who uses a ventilator to help me breathe. Living in San Francisco, emergency preparedness is always in the back of my mind in the event of a power outage, earthquake, or fire. Every time a major disaster occurs, whether it’s far away or in my region, I wait for the stories of older or disabled people left behind during evacuations or encountering major problems accessing services at shelters and during recovery.

These tales pain me because I could easily be one of them, and because I know some of this suffering and death could be prevented with better infrastructure and policies.

While there are stories of heroic rescues by firefighters, first responders, volunteers, and neighbors, there are too many instances of older adults and disabled people dying or harmed due to lack of planning, accessibility, and neglect during catastrophic events like hurricanes Irma and Maria, just to name two recent natural disasters.

Did you know that the average age of those who died in the Napa County and Sonoma County wildfires was 79? These were people who might have had difficulties with mobility, communication, understanding, hearing, and seeing. Living in a rural area without social support or cellphone coverage can create a perfect storm of danger, trauma, and death. Planning by local, state, and federal governments must improve in partnership with disability advocates and other community organizations working on the ground.

Medical personnel evacuate patients during the Camp Fire.
Photo by AP Photo/Noah Berger

Even with the best warning notification systems and strategic plans, people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted during natural disasters. Here are a few examples of the challenges and systemic failures disability communities faced, taken from a report assessing federally declared disasters between August 2017 and January 2018:

  • People in nursing homes and other institutions were not evacuated
  • Lack of equal access to shelters with some people being turned away due to their needs
  • Delays or failures in providing critical information in accessible formats (e.g., texts, video relay, video captions, sign language interpreters, plain language)
  • Gaps in access to food, water, and other forms of assistance
  • Lack of adequate health care, services, and equipment such as oxygen, dialysis, and durable medical equipment
  • Difficulties applying and receiving assistance from FEMA
  • People being unnecessarily institutionalized due to lack of housing options, disruption in community-based services, or problems navigating the system

It is too early to assess the full impact of lives lost and people missing as the numbers continue to increase. Only yesterday, November 12th, the White House approved Governor Brown’s request for a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration for the counties affected by the wildfires after he threatened to withhold federal aid to California. Even more alarming is the fact that FEMA announced in May they will reduce the number of their Disability Integration Advisors from 60 to 5 per disaster, to the dismay by many in the disability community.

Last Saturday I received a text alert from the SF Department of Emergency Management stating the air quality in SF was unhealthy, advising “older adults, kids, and people with heart/lung disease to avoid strenuous outdoor activities,” with an AQI (air quality index) of 180 at 5 a.m. with 50 or lower as “good.”

I have limited lung capacity and felt some minor symptoms but nothing unmanageable or urgent. My friends with chronic illnesses and disabilities in the area are also feeling the effects of the Camp Fire, just as we had with the Carr Fire earlier this year. Many already had N95 masks or were strategizing about how to remain as safe as possible.

All of this requires privilege. I have a home with an air purifier and the choice of staying inside. While I don’t enjoy cancelling my plans, my health is a priority and this is nothing compared to the struggles of first responders, people who are displaced by the fires, and the incarcerated people forced to fight fires for $1 per hour.

Climate change is real. Frequent natural disasters are the new normal. Right now, disabled advocates are working with communities all over the state connecting them to the help they need. Community organizations and informal networks need support coordinating services and providing direct assistance. Our lives are at stake and thoughts and prayers are not enough. Below are some ways you can support people with disabilities and the general population during these wildfires and the ones to come in the near future.

5 ways to support

  1. Ability Tools is a program of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, providing medical equipment, daily living aids, and technology to people in shelters who need them. They are currently taking donations, and you can contact them via Facebook or by calling 1-800-390-2699 (1-800-900-0706 TTY). Support them by donating money or equipment in good condition.
  2. Donate to the Portlight Strategies/Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, a national organization on disability rights, accessibility and inclusion related to disaster operations. It manages a 24-hour disaster hotline for for people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs (1-800-626-4959 or
  3. Give money to Mask Oakland, a volunteer group of queer disabled people delivering free N95 respirator masks to Oakland’s most vulnerable. They use donations to buy more masks and post receipts of all their purchases. Twitter: @MaskOakland; Venmo: @maskoakland.
  4. Donate to the Northern California Fire Relief Fund by the North Valley Community Foundation to raise money to support the operations of organizations sheltering evacuees of the Camp Fire.
  5. Give to Supplying Aid to Victims of Emergency (SAVE) program from the California Fire Foundation, which gives $100 gift cards to people impacted by wildfires including firefighters and civilians.

You can also check out this list of resources and articles to learn more.