What Wildfire Response Looks Like On The Central Coast During COVID-19

Aug 24, 2020

 


Not so long ago, people were told to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, thousands have been told to leave as multiple wildfires burn across the Central Coast. And because of COVID-19, emergency operations have also had to evolve. 

When there’s been a disaster is the past, Jim Burns could be found in the field. But right now, like many across the country, he’s working virtually.

“So it's been quite different,” said Burns. He’s a spokesperson for the Red Cross and is based in Santa Cruz. 

In responding to this emergency, the Red Cross has set up 12 traditional shelters across Northern California and is also operating 27 non-congregate shelter sites, like hotels. 

 

A Red Cross volunteer works at the Cabrillo College shelter in Santa Cruz.
Credit Red Cross

“The concept of non-congregate sheltering in hotels and the like is unusual for us,” Burns said. 

A volunteer doctor takes temperatures at the Santa Cruz Bible Church shelter.
Credit Red Cross

In anticipation of wildfire season, and because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Red Cross established relationships with local hotels in advance. 

“Because the shelters that we have set up, you have to provide much more spacing than you would in a normal shelter. And so therefore, the capacity is much less,” said Burns.

Some are also not comfortable going to a shelter during a pandemic, Burns added.

Another challenge has been the sheer amount of wildfires burning at one time. Just around the Monterey Bay region, there are four wildfires covering over 230 square miles collectively. 

An evacuee collects some supplies from a volunteer at the Santa Cruz Bible Church shelter.
Credit Red Cross.

“The fact that they're spread out and that we have multiple fires of considerable scale occurring at the same time has made it challenging,” said Burns. 

Despite all these challenges and changes, much of what they are doing is the same as what they've always done; feeding people, providing a place to sleep, and offering medical services, including mental health support. 

And because these fires are not expected to be contained soon, Burns is offering this advice: get prepared, make a plan and stay informed.