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How San Diego’s Foreign Language Speakers Stay Informed About Wildfires

A San Diego County employee scrolls through the new Spanish-language version ...

Photo by Jean Guerrero

Above: A San Diego County employee scrolls through the new Spanish-language version of the SDEmergency app, August 17, 2015.

San Diego's extreme wildfire threat has most of the county on high alert, with residents turning to local news, social media accounts for public agencies and emergency alerts for information. For the nearly half a million county residents who aren't fluent in English, communication channels may look a bit different.

Special Feature What You Need To Know In The Event Of A Wildfire In San Diego County

If you or your loved ones live in an area prone to wildfires, there are certain steps you can take to be prepared.

Data from the 2015 American Community Survey shows nearly 16 percent of San Diego County residents speak English less than "very well."

Ramla Sahid, founder and director of the nonprofit Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans in City Heights, said some newcomers may rely on community leaders to help them stay in the know.

"A lot of our community groups have what we call indigenous leadership or informal leaders — people who have been here a little longer, who know the system, how to navigate the system, and who understand the culture and are from the community," Sahid said.

Local resettlement agency Jewish Family Service operates its own notification system to alert refugees of dangerous situations, said Etleva Bejko, the organization's director of refugee and immigration services.

"Jewish Family Service does have a disaster emergency plan in place that includes notifying clients when disasters occur," Bejko said in an emailed statement. "All refugee clients also receive instruction on responding to emergencies and natural disasters, such as when to call 911, during their orientation."

Additionally, a spokeswoman for San Diego County said the Office of Emergency Services and Health and Human Services Agency joined forces to better inform the region's diverse communities.

"Since 2014, more than 300 individuals representing non-profit organizations, houses of worship, and refugee resettlement agencies within the county have come together to form a 'partner relay system' to assist in public communication of potentially lifesaving information during disasters and public health emergencies," Alex Bell said in an email.

Bell said the county's partners reach communities that speak Arabic, Chinese, Karen, Korean, Spanish, Somali, Tagalog and Vietnamese, and also notify homeless providers.

The county also has a Spanish-language emergency app and website.

However, Catholic Charities of San Diego Executive Director Robert Moser said the language barrier has not previously been a problem for past wildfires because most refugees do not live in high-risk areas.

As the wildfire threat level climbs, how can non-English speakers get informed?


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