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As Wildfire Season Nears, COVID-19 Raises Questions About Emergency Shelters

By April Ehrlich (Jefferson Public Radio)
June 15, 2020 12:30 p.m.

When a natural disaster like a wildfire hits, the Red Cross usually sets up an emergency shelter at a school gym or church. But the coronavirus pandemic will change that.

Normally, evacuees are crowded into a shared space where they sleep on cots with just a few feet between them. People share blankets, food, drinks, bathrooms and showers.


That's what happened after more than 700 households were evacuated from the 2017 Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge. Many people stayed with friends or family, and the Red Cross arranged for others to camp at a nearby fairground or lodge at a local church.

Congregate disaster shelters like this can become a hotbed of germs. When the Paradise fire hit Northern California in 2018, the norovirus was going around. That infected hundreds of evacuees with diarrhea and vomiting, and it was messy.

Related: Oregon Lawmakers Bump Up Wildfire Funds As A Potentially Big Season Looms

American Red Cross managers across the West Coast say this year they’re going to have to get creative to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among evacuees.

“We anticipate using what we call non-congregate sheltering which means we're going to put clients in hotels and motels first,” said Medford-based regional Red Cross manager Joel King.

The details are still being worked out, but King said so far the plan is to rent all of the rooms at a given hotel. Meals will be delivered to their doors instead of served buffet-style, and the Red Cross will foot the bill. Red Cross officials are speaking to hotels about this plan, but they’re not entering into official agreements, so there’s no assurance that they'll have rooms available when a wildfire hits.


Wildfires tend to book up hotels as people flee their homes in search of a place to stay. That was Redding, California, resident Jay Johnson’s experience when he tried to find a hotel room during the 2018 Carr Fire.

“We got evacuated yesterday from West Redding,” Johnson said the day after the fire jumped the Sacramento River and descended on Redding, on July 26, 2018. He was sitting on a cot with his family in the Shasta College gym, which was bustling with evacuees.

“We decided to go south to Anderson and stay in the Walmart parking lot because we figured out, after making phone calls along the way, that there was no hotels available anywhere,” he said. “You had to go all the way to Sacramento in order to get a hotel.”

Across the state border in Southern Oregon, Josephine County emergency coordinator Claire Wiener said hotel room availability may be a concern, since the county has been providing hotels to coronavirus patients who don’t have stable housing.

Related: Fire Camp Germ Spread Is Dicey In Normal Times. COVID-19 Could Make It Worse.

“And that goes along with conversations that we've had with the Oregon Department of Forestry where we know that there's some potential for state fire crews and federal fire crews to be sheltered at hotels,” she said.

Firefighters usually sleep in a camp and, much like disaster shelters occupants, they can easily spread germs. They even have a name for it: “camp crud.”

Meanwhile, as counties start to reopen, hotels could start filling up with travelers. Despite all that, Wiener said she doubts there’ll be an issue with room availability during a wildfire disaster, mostly because it hasn’t happened before.

“I don't know of a situation in Josephine County where we have seen more than 50 people try to use a shelter at a time,” Weiner said. “So I don't know that we're going to see a population to that extent where that would start to be an issue.”

If there are mass evacuations, Red Cross officials say they’ll consider other ways of sheltering people. That could include an outdoor congregate shelter — also known as a campground. But even with social distancing and diligent sanitizing, the coronavirus remains a threat.

OPB staff contributed to this story.