Surviving California’s Historic Wildfires
Illustration by Mark Weber

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Lake Kowell didn’t have long to respond when the Tubbs Fire reached her Northern California home in October 2017. The evening of October 8, Kowell, a T11 para, saw far-off flames and heard chimes clanging in strong winds. Around midnight someone pounded on her front door and told her to evacuate. “Smoke and planes were everywhere,” she says. By the time she rolled away from her house, everything had changed. “It was like Mordor.”

Fortunately, Kowell had an emergency plan, which included a bag with supplies to last about a week, connections with neighbors to help with evacuation, her own wheelchair van for transportation and a place to stay with family in nearby Petaluma. A strong network of friends and neighbors helped her through the disaster. “I didn’t feel afraid,” she says, “I felt supported.”

Kowell credits the skills she learned living with a spinal cord injury for helping her stay calm during the disaster and recovery. “When something traumatic happens, it changes your whole perspective,” she says. “You just do what you have to do to survive.”

Kowell stayed in Petaluma for a week, returned home when everything was safe and immediately got back to work at the Disability Services and Legal Center in Santa Rosa, helping others affected by the fire.

Sadly, Kowell’s trip through Mordor was not an isolated experience. The horrors of California’s 2017 fires gave way to the most devastating wildfire season in the state’s history in 2018. The trend of longer and more damaging fire seasons has Californians growing more concerned about what Governor Jerry Brown described as the “new abnormal.” This new abnormal has hit people with disabilities especially hard.

Not all of those affected by the fires had outcomes as positive as Kowell’s. Many evacuees struggled to find accessible hotels or temporary housing, and those who sought refuge in shelters sometimes had to wait for appropriate beds to be brought in. Medication, durable medical equipment and personal assistance were often hard to acquire or difficult to manage. Even those who weren’t forced to evacuate were heavily impacted. In areas affected by smoke, people with respiratory problems could not leave their homes, and many suffered asthma attacks or worse. At one point, over 250,000 people were under evacuation orders, unable to remain in their homes.

Unfortunately, this may be par for our new course — as climate change progresses, many types of natural disasters will become more frequent and disruptive. Personal preparedness, government planning and community response will only become more vital as we move forward.

Giselle Friedman and Lake Kowell have learned from experience how to be better prepared the next time disaster strikes.

Giselle Friedman, left, and Lake Kowell have learned from experience how to be better prepared the next time disaster strikes.

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The Longest Night

On Nov. 8, just days after the Camp Fire became the most destructive blaze in California’s history, another wildfire hit Southern California’s Ventura County and nearby areas. Pushed by the powerful Santa Ana winds, the Woolsey Fire sparked a few miles inland, jumped the 101 freeway and roared west, sending thick plumes of smoke over the Pacific Ocean. It burned 97,000 acres in under two weeks and forced 295,000 people to evacuate.

Giselle Friedman, a C4-5 incomplete quad, was one of the 295,000. Her first warning came on Nov. 9 at 6:32 p.m. when the local fire department called and texted seniors and people with disabilities to suggest they voluntarily evacuate. Friedman, three years out from her spinal cord injury, is able to use canes or a walker, and like many people with disabilities, requires supplies for personal routines. She began searching for necessities to get her through a week or more, and a friend helped her put together a single backpack, though she lamented her lack of ability to grab and carry more. “I was really scared,” she says. “There’s so much more I could’ve taken with me.”

“The hardest thing,” says Anthony Tusler about the 2017 Nuns Fire, “was finding a place to evactuate to, because all the hotels were booked.”

“The hardest thing,” says Anthony Tusler about the 2017 Nuns Fire, “was finding a place to evactuate to, because all the hotels were booked.”

When the full mandatory evacuation warning hit around 8 or 9 p.m., Friedman’s friend carried the quickly-filled backpack and some dog food to the car waiting outside. Friedman’s dog in tow, they drove to the home of her friend’s 85-year-old mother in nearby Westlake Village and stayed awake, glued to the television.

Around 3:15 a.m., the TV news broadcast a sheriff’s announcement: Westlake was now in danger. For the second time in 24 hours, Friedman was forced to evacuate. She, her friend and her friend’s mom piled into the car and headed to Friedman’s mother’s tiny one-bedroom/one-bathroom apartment — a snug fit for its new crew of four people and a dog. They settled in during the early hours of the morning and prepared for a long stay.

Friedman kept a close eye on her neighborhood through the news and social media over the next couple of days. When it was clear her area was unscathed by the fire, she drove back. She believes that if she didn’t have a disability, she would have remained at her mother’s longer, but says the convenience of having her own modified house made it difficult to stay away.

The whole ordeal motivated her to develop a comprehensive plan for any future disasters. “I know what I need to do now,” she says. Atop her list is keeping a lightweight, wheeled carry-on bag packed with a week’s worth of supplies and asking her network of neighbors to check on her apartment during an emergency. The Woolsey fire was a difficult experience, but Friedman is confident her new strategy will make her much safer going forward.

Anthony Tusler lives in Penngrove, a rural area in Sonoma County north of San Francisco. He ran into a different problem when he was placed on evacuation notice during the Nuns Fire in 2017: securing accessible lodging. “For eight days I had my bags packed and ready to go,” says Tusler, an L1-2 para. “The hardest thing was finding a place to evacuate to, because all the hotels were booked.”

While some people end up in disaster shelters, many others stay in hotels or short-term lodging services such as Airbnb, or bunk in the spare bedroom of nearby friends or family. All of these options are often difficult for people like Tusler who need accessible entrances, bedrooms and restrooms. He eventually connected with a friend who lives 30 miles away and has a single-level home without any front steps. Tusler kept his friend on call in case he needed to evacuate. Luckily, the flames spared Tusler’s home, but the difficulty of securing accessible shelter kept him in Penngrove when otherwise he might have left his house as a cautionary measure.

The Power of Planning

As Friedman and Tusler learned, planning is invaluable during fast-moving disasters like California’s wildfires. A well-thought-out Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan could literally be the difference between life and death, and at a minimum is a guaranteed way to alleviate stress during what is sure to be a difficult time. A PEEP should include everything from preparing an emergency supply bag to identifying transportation to connecting with friends and neighbors. It is also wise to sign up for local emergency notifications — which is how Friedman received her initial voluntary evacuation message. Sometimes, though, individual actions can only do so much.

California has developed a network of organizations and advocates focused on preparing for disasters and responding once they happen. The Department of Social Services deploys Functional Assessment Service Teams to Red Cross shelters, where they assess residents’ disability-related needs and request necessary supplies and support. Independent Living Centers also organize deliveries of durable medical equipment donated by individuals, DME vendors and recyclers. In just the last two years, these donations have provided hundreds of pieces of equipment to people in shelters, hotels and other temporary housing. Given what people may lose in fires, this DME can be life-saving.

Lingering Effects

Ana Acton got a first-hand look at how devastating the fires can be for people with disabilities as she collected donations, such as DME, wheelchairs and vans, and helped coordinate responses to November’s Camp Fire in Northern California. Acton is a T12 para and the executive director of FREED, an independent living center that serves Yuba and Sutter Counties.

Before it was subdued, the 155,000-acre Camp Fire incinerated over 10,000 structures and killed 79 people en route to becoming the most destructive wild fire in California’s history. It destroyed most of the town of Paradise, where a high percentage of residents were older, had a disability and/or an income below the poverty level. In fact, a report in The Sacramento Bee found that almost 25 percent of the 9,500 people in the Paradise area had a disability. That’s more than twice the statewide rate, as is the percentage of residents with an ambulatory difficulty in the three counties affected by the fire (11.8 percent).

“Butte County just lost a large amount of their affordable housing,” Acton says.

As difficult as it is dealing with immediate loss of property, long-term recovery is also arduous. The 2017 Tubbs Fire, for example, destroyed more than 5,600 homes and businesses and left evacuees scattered around Northern California. One CIL that serves an area affected by Tubbs reports that its caseload increased by about 20 percent after the fires hit and remains at that level over a year later. This isn’t just because some new clients are evacuees; the overall higher demand on the area’s limited housing and services has triggered a cascade effect.
Accessible housing in the Santa Rosa area is still “nonexistent,” confirms Kowell. “Our resources are all tapped out” from residents’ post-fire needs, she says. In addition to losing their homes, many evacuees with disabilities also need new sources for supplies, services and personal care supports.

Looking Forward

To survive and recover from destructive wildfires requires both personal responsibility and public initiatives. There are steps everyone can take to increase their own chance of making it out, and then there are actions that can only be done by communities working in tandem with government agencies.

Acton emphasizes that people who had emergency plans — and lived with housemates or who knew their neighbors — were more likely to be checked on, evacuate their homes and make it to safety. “Independence includes having your personal assistants and community support,” she says. She urges people to include personal care attendants and other possible supporters on their PEEPs.

State and local service providers in California are working to improve their services and response. If there is any positive to the fires, it is that responders can analyze their responses and actions and figure out what worked, what didn’t and where new solutions are needed. As an example, the shortage of accessible housing near Santa Rosa in the wake of the 2017 fires has motivated advocates to push for universal “visitability,” where most or all homes have doorways 32 inches wide, at least one first-floor bathroom and a no-step entrance. Surely, other lessons will come out of the disasters that can hopefully minimize the impact of similar events across the state and elsewhere.

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Adapts Emergency Sling

Sometimes, valuable tools come from unexpected places — and sometimes, those tools can start a movement that saves lives. This is the case with ADAPTS, an innovative transfer sling that can be invaluable in an emergency. ADAPTS is the brainchild of Robin Wearley, a former flight attendant who grew concerned about poor evacuation planning for passengers with disabilities. The usual protocol is to let all nondisabled passengers out first, then lift the person under their knees and shoulders and carry them to safety. Wearley saw many problems with this. What if it’s a rapid emergency and everyone must evacuate quickly? What if staff aren’t trained on the proper lift technique? What if the passenger is an amputee or has weakened bones or joints? There had to be a better way.

The ADAPTS sling can be used in many situations, including emergency evacuations and transfers.

The ADAPTS sling can be used in many situations, including emergency evacuations and transfers.

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A February 2016 interview with John Morris of wheelchairtravel.org for a blog piece on airplane evacuations inspired Wearley to design ADAPTS. “It’s intuitive to use and resembles a soft stretcher,” she explains, “and the person is cradled in it like a hammock.”

Two years and seven prototype designs later, Wearley began touring the country at disability product expos to sell the final product — a bright yellow, foldable sling with six handles. It is manufactured almost entirely in the United States. Although originally designed for airplanes, ADAPTS works in many situations. “I hear about other applications from our customers, so the research and development comes directly from the end-users,” Wearley says.

It can be used to get out of bed in immediate evacuations, to be carried down a stairwell when an elevator is broken, or even in an emergency shelter to transfer from bed to wheelchair.