In California wildfires, disabled people may be left behind

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

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.

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