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San Diego County Leaders Form Plans for Wildfire Season During COVID-19 Pandemic

Hot sunny skies are drying out vegetation in San Diego's east county, raising...

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: Hot sunny skies are drying out vegetation in San Diego's east county, raising the risk of wildfire on May 4, 2020.

San Diego County leaders, joined by Cal Fire and the local Red Cross, urged San Diegans Wednesday to prepare for a wildfire season that might be unlike anything the region has seen.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials are revamping evacuation plans and other emergency protocols to bolster public safety during a major firestorm.

Residents under evacuation orders this year could be housed in a hotel or motel, or at multiple shelters with fewer than 50 people instead of a larger traditional shelter. The Red Cross is working with nearly 100 lodging businesses across the county to make rooms available in a crisis, and they have identified more than 200 shelter locations to provide these safer options.

"We're entering the riskiest part of the wildfire season while still being in the middle of an unprecedented health crisis," County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said. "That is forcing us to rethink and retool our disaster- planning efforts."

The changes come as Cal Fire and the county continue to encourage property owners to clear brush and maintain a 100-foot buffer around homes and other structures.

"As we head into our warmer months, we need all resources available," County Supervisor Jim Desmond said. "The question isn't if, but when. We know fires are a part of living in San Diego, but putting in the preparation ahead of time is the best tactic we can use."

The county Office of Emergency Services asks residents to include face coverings and hand sanitizer in their evacuation kits, and replace any items that may have been used during the extended quarantine.

Residents are encouraged each year to put together a personal disaster plan and an emergency supply kit. Details can be found at www.readysandiego.org.

In the event of a major wildfire, residents should alert public safety staff if they stop at a temporary evacuation point and are experiencing flu- like symptoms or have tested positive for COVID-19.

"Just as we have been asking people to take steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we also have to stay tuned to our natural environment as we approach peak fire season in our region," county Office of Emergency Services Director Jeff Toney said. "It is especially critical to take steps now to reduce the risk of fire danger around our homes and businesses by creating defensible space and being prepared to evacuate if told to do so."

Feeding those displaced by disaster will also be done differently. The Red Cross says packaged meals will be provided, instead of the usual cafeteria-style distribution.

Other critical services, such as mental health counseling and recovery information, could be offered through virtual meetings or with physical distancing measures in place.

"Disasters require flexibility and planning for a number of variables — especially in the COVID-19 environment," said Sean Mahoney, CEO of the American Red Cross Southern California Region. "As wildfire season approaches, the goal of the Red Cross remains to provide comfort and support to anyone in need after a disaster, and we are prepared to do just that."

County officials encourage residents to download the SD Emergency app and sign up for emergency notifications from AlertSanDiego. More information is available on the readysandiego.org website.

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