Thousands of wildfire evacuees present a public health challenge amid pandemic

A Salvation Army officer assists a woman with crutches
Mary Thomson, right, of Phoenix, Ore., gets assistance from Salvation Army officer Tawnya Stumpf at the evacuation center set up at the Jackson County Fairgrounds on Sept. 12.
(Paula Bronstein / Associated Press)

Fearing one disaster will feed another, relief groups are putting some people who fled their homes during West Coast wildfires into hotels to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, stringing up shower curtains to separate people in group shelters and delivering box lunches instead of setting up buffets.

Large disaster response organizations like the American Red Cross are still operating some traditional shelters in gyms and churches, where they require masks, clean and disinfect often and try to keep evacuees at least 6 feet apart. The groups say they can reduce the risk of COVID-19 in a shelter but can’t keep people safe if they don’t evacuate from the flames.

“The last thing we want to have happen is people to remain in the path of a wildfire or hurricane because they think it’s safer to do that than risk a shelter,” said Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross.


Wildfire survivors try to salvage their belongings from the ashes of homes in Phoenix, Ore.

Sept. 13, 2020

Kathy Gee, 68, has diabetes and other conditions that make her vulnerable to the virus, but that didn’t keep her from fleeing her farm in Molalla, Ore., where wildfires made the hillside grow red, for a shelter in Portland.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. I’m tough,” she said of COVID-19. “I’ve survived lots of things. I can survive that.”

It can be difficult, however, for people already reeling from a disaster to consistently follow rules on the virus.

At the Oregon State Fairgrounds in the capital, Salem, groups of maskless evacuees gathered in a parking lot and a barn Friday, talking about the unprecedented wildfires that have destroyed an area bigger than Rhode Island. Volunteers wearing disposable masks walked from group to group, taking down their information and asking what they need for the days ahead.

Signs were plastered on the doors of the exposition center, where cots were set up, with safety guidelines for both wildfires and the pandemic. Inside, nearly everyone wore masks after volunteers manning the door reminded them to do so.

The fires in California, Oregon and Washington state have killed at least 33 people and sent 6,300 to emergency Red Cross shelters and hotels. As many as 50,000 more could need shelters before the blazes are under control, Kieserman said.


Normally, they’d be gathering in school gymnasiums and meeting halls, sleeping on cots and eating at buffet lines provided by the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other faith and community groups. But because COVID-19 is easily spread in close quarters, gathering places are potential hotbeds of transmission. That’s got disaster assistance groups taking a different approach.

The Red Cross screens evacuees, and those who are sick or have symptoms are sent to special isolation shelters and kept away from one another. When possible, displaced residents are sent to hotels instead of group shelters. Instead of buffet lines, box lunches are delivered.

“We’re not using a gym, we’re renting a hotel room at 120 dollars a night. And hotels charge for parking — it’s all those things you never think about during a disaster,” Kieserman said.

In Central California, where thousands of residents had to flee the Creek fire, more than 1,200 evacuees are staying at 30 hotels, said Tony Briggs with the Red Cross in Fresno. In group shelters, staffers are using plastic pipes strung with clear shower curtains to separate evacuees but allow them to see out from their own socially distanced areas.

Mass evacuations of this scale are incredibly difficult, said Karl Kim, executive director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center, which trains first responders.

Generally, he said, evacuees either leave early and quickly or aren’t as mobile and require some help getting out. The latter group may be elderly, have health challenges or have animals — all possible disincentives to evacuate.


They might decide to wait it out longer and also are more likely to need shelters, said Kim, who’s also director of the Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance Program at the University of Hawaii. Some of them could be at greater risk of COVID-19 complications.

In Oregon, group shelters are set up at churches, colleges and community buildings, while malls, golf courses and other businesses opened parking for evacuees who can stay in recreational vehicles.

It will likely be weeks before officials know if the evacuations contributed to the virus spreading, and even then, it may be difficult to tell as families scatter to new locations.

“Contract tracing is really critical during a pandemic, and just because there’s a wildfire, all of the needs associated with contract tracing don’t just go away,” Kim said. “I think it’s more complicated because of the urgent nature of the evacuation. We don’t have good systems for this; nonetheless, we need to do that tracking. That’s the ongoing public health challenge.”

Some lessons may be learned from Louisiana and Texas. Both had high rates of COVID-19 when hurricanes hit in late August.

Louisiana used its “Megashelter,” a facility spanning more than 200,000 square feet that’s designed to hold nearly 4,000 evacuees, for those with special medical needs during Hurricane Laura. Others got help finding hotel rooms and vouchers to cover the cost. Louisiana health officials are now offering evacuees mobile COVID-19 testing.