People with disabilities disproportionately harmed in California wildfires

smoke from a wildfire approaching houses
The Right to be Rescued

The Los Angeles Times recently published a feature September 28 highlighting the unique challenges faced by people with disabilities when escaping wildfires, such as the fires that have swarmed California during the most recent fire season.

In a recent fire in Lake County, four people died. One was a 72-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis, who was trapped in her home. The other three were men above the age of 65, and thus likely had physical, or other, limitations.

In Calveras County, home of the Butte fire that started September 9, two people died. Similarly, one was a 65-year-old man with one leg, and the other was a 82-year-old man “who a friend said had become depressed and increasingly immobile,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

As detailed in the article, most emergency preparedness plans lack special protections for people with disabilities. Among the most common challenges faced by people with disabilities in California are improper communication, evacuation plans with unobtainable physical demands, and inaccessible shelters.

The past few months are not the first time these issues have come to the forefront in California. After a series of wildfires in San Diego County in 2007, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services created an Office of Access and Functional Needs, which provides guidance to municipalities throughout the state.

“If you don’t shine a light on this issue, it just gets overlooked,” Office Chief L. Vance Taylor told the Los Angeles Times. “This state is just a tinderbox. We know that if this doesn’t get addressed it’s going to be that much worse tomorrow.”

Disability inclusion in emergency preparedness plans has become an increased focus of disability advocates in recent years. Courts have found some of the nation’s largest cities to have emergency preparedness plans that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, including  New York City and Los Angeles.

Disability Rights Washington’s project, Rooted in Rights, recently produced “The Right to be Rescued,” a video that tells the stories of people with disabilities affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Information about how emergency planners can ensure people with disabilities are included in plans, and how to use the video in advocating for change is available on Rooted in Rights’ Right to be Rescued page.

Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, is the protection and advocacy agency for Washington, and is a member of the National Disability Rights Network.