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How To Evacuate From Wildfire During Coronavirus Pandemic

Red Cross volunteer Cathy Sang, left, talks to people wanting to volunteer th...

Photo by Denis Poroy / AP

Above: Red Cross volunteer Cathy Sang, left, talks to people wanting to volunteer their time in front of the Kearny High School gymnasium in San Diego, Monday, Sept. 5, 2005.

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The threats wildfires pose to life, property and health and the challenges inherent in emergency evacuations are compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Aired: June 11, 2020 | Transcript

Hot, dry Santa Ana conditions across San Diego County this week have contributed to several, mostly small, brush fires, including one burning Thursday that forced evacuations near Jamul.

The threats wildfires pose to life, property and health, and the challenges inherent in emergency evacuations, are compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Shelters will look a little different because of COVID-19 and social distancing requirements as well as health orders to avoid gatherings of any size.

Typically, the Red Cross provides shelters for hundreds of people in places like school gyms with cots placed close together, said Sean Mahoney, regional chief executive officer for the American Red Cross Southern California Region.

"That’s not going to work under a COVID environment," he said.

The Red Cross has been working on a plan to provide alternatives to traditional shelters that includes hotel rooms, dorm rooms, RV campgrounds or covered parking spaces.

Mahoney said the Red Cross will use smaller shelters, for fewer than 50 people, if they have to. There they plan to screen volunteers and evacuees for the virus. He said the Red Cross has a supply of personal protective equipment including masks for volunteers and evacuees.

The organization also had to rethink how it keeps track of people arriving at evacuation centers. Instead of registering at community centers where people normally stand close together in a line, the Red Cross will direct people to a temporary evacuation point that has covered parking so they can remain in their vehicles. The Red Cross has identified 37 covered parking lots throughout the county to be used as new temporary evacuation points.

Another challenge is food. Usually, meals are served cafeteria-style. But that's changing to individually packaged meals.

Services to help people impacted by wildfires are also moving online.

While necessary, Mahoney said the extra precautions cost more. Under typical circumstances, Red Cross partners provide access to shelter locations for free. But hotel rooms can cost thousands. The Red Cross is fundraising to help cover its expenses.

Cal Fire officials said even though the county is under a stay-at-home order due to COVID-19, if or when the warning comes to evacuate, everyone must heed those warnings in order to save life and property.

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