To top it off, the COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of challenges for first responders, emergency managers and evacuees headed to evacuation centers. With the BA.5 variant being the most dominant strain of COVID-19 in the country, more people appear to be contracting the virus multiple times as the variant appears to evade immune responses, even in those who have been fully vaccinated with a booster shot.
Have questions or advice on wildfire preparation during the pandemic? Let us know here.
What should be in my go bag?
Items for the pandemic:
Face masks or coverings (at least two per person)
Sanitation supplies such as hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, soap and disinfectant wipes
People who are vulnerable to the coronavirus or are self-quarantining may want to take special mask precautions, such as wearing two face coverings.
Regular emergency bag list:
Map marked with at least two evacuation routes
Medication, supplies and home-use medical devices
Medications list: include all prescriptions and other important medical information
An extra set of keys
Eyeglasses or contact lenses
A change of clothes
Cash in small bills
A portable radio and batteries
Charging cables for your cellphone and a portable cellphone battery pack
A copy of your ID and other important documents (birth certificates, passports, etc.)
Baby supplies, if applicable
Water: one gallon a person, per day (three-day supply for evacuation, two-week supply for home)
Food: nonperishable, easy-to-prepare items (three-day supply for evacuation, two-week supply for home)
Remember: You may have to walk to safety, so pack your emergency supplies in something that’s durable and easy to carry, such as a backpack or duffle bag. For heavier items, such as food and water, using a tub or chest on wheels may make it easier to transport — but make sure it's still light enough to lift.
Pet emergency baglist: If you have pets, Cal Fire has put together this list of items to make sure you bring, which includes:
A carrier for each pet
Vaccination and medical records, proof of ownership, a current photo, contact information for the pet's veterinarian
Two week supply of food and water
Food and water bowls that are non-spill
A pet first aid kit
Medications and instructions on dosing
A cat litter box and litter
Waste disposal bags
Paper towels and newspaper
Toys and treats
Make sure your pets have collars with identification, rabies and license tags. Check to make sure your contact information is up to date.
Fire preparedness is multifaceted — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you live in a fire-prone area, it's important to make sure your home is prepared though home hardening and maintaining a defensible space to increase the chance of your home’s survival in the case of a wildfire.
Normally, Cal Fire conducts defensible space inspections at households vulnerable to wildfires, but the pandemic has limited their ability to do so. So they've established a self-assessment that homeowners can complete to address where weaknesses may lie.
“This self-assessment helps our inspectors comply with social distancing recommendations while still collecting vital information,” said Chief Thom Porter, Cal Fire director. “We urge you to participate in the survey and do your part to protect your community by creating defensible space and hardening your home to increase its chances of surviving a wildfire."
Should we turn off our natural gas?
If you need to evacuate immediately, you should follow evacuation orders and leave.
However, if you have the time, FEMA and Cal Fire recommend that you turn off the gas supply. First locate the shutoff valve, which is usually located close to your gas meter. Using a 12-15 inch wrench, turn off the gas by turning the hand wheel clockwise so that it is perpendicular to the pipe. You should also turn off any propane tanks.
Do not turn your natural gas back on by yourself after an evacuation. PG&E crews will inspect each meter and turn it back on.
With COVID, how will evacuation centers be different from previous years?
According to the CDC, if you are preparing to go to a shelter and want to lower the risk of a possible COVID infection, make sure your go bag has items like hand sanitizer that can help protect you and others from the virus. You should also be staying up to date with COVID vaccines, making it less likely that you will need medical services while hospitals are under strain from the emergency.
The CDC recommends vaccines for everyone age 6 months and older, and COVID-19 boosters for everyone age 5 years and older, if eligible.
The American Red Cross — which has provided evacuees shelter during recent California wildfires — established standard precautions based on guidance from health officials, FEMA and the CDC.
However, the Red Cross will prioritize providing refuge in individual hotel rooms or dormitory style rooms when possible.
"The biggest changes is that, when possible, we are trying to support people — who would otherwise need to be in a shelter — with non-congregant accommodations such as motel or hotel rooms. That won't always be possible, but it's our first option these days for obvious reasons," said Jim Burns, spokesperson for the Northern California American Red Cross, in an email.
To ensure Red Cross emergency shelters are safe, here are additional precautions they are taking at evacuation centers:
Everyone coming into the shelter will undergo a health screening and be required to have an appropriate face covering.
Increasing wellness checks to identify potential illness, including self-monitoring and checking temperatures of both shelter residents and staff
Providing surgical masks, tissues and plastic bags throughout the shelter
Providing additional handwashing stations, in addition to normal restroom facilities
Planning for setting up an isolation care area in the shelter
Following social distancing practices by staggering meal times and adding extra spacing between cots, chairs, tables, etc.
Enhancing cleaning and disinfecting practices throughout the shelter.
What can I do if I can't use my smartphone to connect with family and friends?
“We’ve become so reliant on smartphones. And when it fails us, there is that panic moment,” said Capt. Erica Arteseros of San Francisco’s Fire Department, who is the program coordinator for NERT. “So, we always recommend to identify an out-of-state person to be a check-in contact.”
Here's How to Prepare for Fire Season
Arteseros said you should send a text message to that out-of-state person with the time and your location, even if you don’t have wireless service, because that text message will eventually get to that person. Phone calls will fail when cell towers are down for either you or your contact, but text messages work on a relay system between emergency beacons on cell towers, so they are more likely to reach people than voice messages and phone calls.
It's also a good idea to update your social media profiles on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to let friends and family know your status, including where you are and when you will update your status again. This allows people to know when to expect information from you and will save cellphone battery, allowing you to go without cell service and Wi-Fi for a little while, if you must.
Remember, some smartphones allow you to change settings to make calls over Wi-Fi, and some apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp allow Wi-Fi phone calls.
Will I miss important news because I don't have a smartphone?
Not necessarily. Counties increasingly rely on the WEA system — wireless emergency alerts that by and large are delivered to cellphones through the IPAWS system, the federal integrated public alert and warning system. Those alerts also go to NOAA Weather Radios, which operate on emergency cranks or battery power. NOAA weather radios broadcast official warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information consistently.
You can also sign up to get NIXLE alerts, which can come via texts, voice messages and emails. If you have a friend, family member or neighbor who does have a smartphone, set up a system so they can get you important info.
How can I make sure I don't lose treasured personal items in an evacuation situation?
Arteseros recommends building a special box that you can take with your go bag.
Those items would include heirlooms, photos and scrapbooks — anything that you consider special in your life that you would be devastated to lose, but is not practical for the go bag.
What should I do about my neighbors?
"Make a plan," Arteseros said. She said it's important to know who your neighbors are. You can help them make a go bag if they don't have one, and make sure they have a way to escape, especially if they don't have a car. (Keep your gas tank full.)
“We don’t want anyone waiting for a neighbor that just can’t get ready,” she said. “But it is important for everyone to look out for each other when something happens.”
We want to know what your questions and concerns are about wildfire preparation during the pandemic. Fill in the form below and let us know:
What questions you have about preparing for wildfires?
What you’re doing to prepare for power shutoffs during the coronavirus pandemic.
Anything else on your mind around wildfires, power shutoffs and COVID-19.
This story has been updated. KQED's Molly Peterson, Danielle Venton and Michelle Wiley contributed to this report.
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