‘We Didn’t Have a Plan’: Disabled People Struggle to Evacuate From Wildfires

As a result, according to Red Cross vice president of disaster operations and logistics Brad Kieserman, the organisation has focused on long-term infrastructure investments such as backup solar power, disaster training, and backup battery installation for people who rely on electricity for their medical devices in hard-hit places like Northern California.

Disabled People Struggle to Evacuate From Wildfires

A nonprofit humanitarian group, Direct Relief, conducted an audit of 2,059 California community health facilities and found that 61% lacked any type of backup power. There are no community health centres in Butte County that have backup power, according to the study.

Assisting those with impairments during an evacuation is nothing new. More than 1,800 people lost their lives as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This led Congress to approve legislation in 2006 making the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disability coordinator and guidelines for effectively serving persons with disabilities mandatory.

An accountability report published in 2019 found that the agency had not provided its employees with adequate disability training.

There was no mention of persons with disabilities in the agency’s annual report on emergency readiness.

In order to better prepare for natural disasters, Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokesperson for FEMA, said the agency was working to expand its ties with disability organisations.

Vance Taylor, chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs at the state’s emergency services agency, said that California is pushing state officials to meet with disability organisations on a frequent basis.

Such organisations can provide support during evacuations, such as by providing power wheelchairs, motorised elevators, ventilators, or other equipment.

Plumas County has set up an emergency transportation service for anyone who has a disability or who otherwise cannot drive, while Butte County now keeps a list of those who may require aid in a crisis and sends law enforcement deputies to their homes during evacuations.

People in California were Forced to Leave their Homes Due to the Disastrous Wildfires

More than a million people in California were forced to leave their homes due to the disastrous wildfires that occurred between 2017 and 2019.

Many Californians were forced to evacuate their homes at the last minute, often in the dark, due to the rapid spread of destructive wildfires. There was a significant strain on transportation and sheltering services as a result of these evacuations.

Despite these obvious difficulties, transportation and emergency management agencies in California have vastly differing degrees of preparedness for large catastrophes, and almost all agencies lack the public resources necessary to adequately and promptly evacuate all people in danger.

We summarise the evacuations of eleven major wildfires in California between 2017 and 2019 and offer a cross-comparison to highlight key similarities and differences in order to comprehensively address these challenges and strengthen current disaster and evacuation planning, preparedness, and response in California.

We offer fresh empirical data gleaned from an online poll of people affected by the wildfires in California in three different years: 1) the October 2017 Northern California wildfires (n=79), 2) the December 2017 Southern California wildfires (n=226), and 3) the 2018 Carr Wildfire (n=284).

Individuals’ decisions during these wildfires are revealed by these data, including whether to evacuate or stay, when to leave, where to go, what form of transportation to use, and what time to return.


We also share findings about messaging and communication, non-evacuee behaviour, and public perception of the government’s response. We provide a set of suggestions for organisations to use in their own preparations, responses, and recoveries following wildfires, based on the synthesised case studies and empirical evidence.