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The 2018 California wildfire season was the deadliest and most destructive ever recorded. More than 8,500 fires burned across the drought-stricken state, scorching 1,893,913 acres – more than the combined areas of Los Angeles, Houston, Jacksonville, Oklahoma City and Phoenix.
First, the Carr Fire erupted in Shasta and Trinity counties with a fire tornado that clocked winds as high as 143 miles per hour. More than 1,000 homes were destroyed and eight people were killed.
The Mendocino Complex Fire followed, burning more than 459,000 acres and becoming the largest complex fire in the state’s history.
Then, on November 8, the Camp Fire exploded in Butte County. It burned 153,000 acres, destroyed nearly 19,000 structures, 14,000 of which were homes, and claimed 85 lives.
While the Camp Fire was still raging, the Woolsey and Hill Fires charred over 105,000 acres in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, consuming homes and businesses throughout the region, and killing at least three people.
Risks Beyond the Flames
The effect of wildfires extends far beyond their burn perimeter. Not only do fires result in burns and other injuries sustained from heat, but they can seriously exacerbate respiratory issues such as asthma as they generate a harsh combination of smoke, dust, and other particulates.
Because many are forced to flee, the evacuation itself can become a crisis when people suffering from chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and hypertension, leave home without their medications. People in such situations can quickly find themselves in a medical crisis.
If shelters become overcrowded, people are more vulnerable to contracting contagious illnesses. Norovirus, for example, is a gastrointestinal illness that can spread rapidly, and also discourage others from using shelters – even if it means camping outdoors in extreme weather or living in vehicles. The virus became a problem when Camp Fire evacuees overwhelmed local accommodations.
After Flames, Toxic Ash
The Camp Fire burned so intensely and moved so quickly that the town of Paradise was reduced to little more than ash. Much of the burn area was subsequently declared to be a public health emergency due to the potentially dangerous mix of toxins left behind.
As a result, many residents remain displaced and will not be allowed to return or start rebuilding until the hazardous debris is removed.
Most of the shelters have closed and hundreds of people and families who lost their homes have been struggling to find short-term housing. There are a limited number of donated trailers, FEMA temporary housing units, and hotel rooms available, leaving many to live in tents and vehicles despite the cold and rainy winter.
Ready to Respond
As a California-based disaster relief and medical assistance organization, Direct Relief has responded to wildfires in California, and throughout the U.S., for decades.
The organization is also a long-time partner of the State of California through its Office of Emergency Services and the State of California Emergency Management Agency, and serves as a member of the state’s Business Operations Center (BOC).
As a result, Direct Relief was quickly able to extend assistance to its extensive network of health centers and clinics throughout California and around the wildfire perimeters.
Direct Relief’s Response
With each wildfire, Direct Relief worked with government authorities as well as medical facilities in the affected region, where people suffered from burns, and smoke inhalation. The organization also responded in neighboring areas affected by dense smoke.
Through April 30, 2019, Direct Relief has delivered 139 shipments, totaling 76,790 pounds and $1.2 million wholesale, to 35 healthcare providers, first responders, public agencies and evacuation centers.
Shipments included more than a dozen of Direct Relief’s specialized Emergency Medical Packs which contain the medical products needed to address disaster-related health concerns, as well as essential personal protective supplies and equipment.
Direct Relief initially developed its Emergency Medical Packs 10 years ago for the Medical Reserve Corps. The packs have since been formally adopted as the State of California standard by for Medical Reserve Corps members.
A total of 50 product manufacturers and distributors contributed medical, nutritional, patient care, and personal protection products to the relief and recovery effort. Emergency shipments contained:
N-95 masks to filter out smoke and dangerous particulates harmful to the respiratory system.
Respiratory medications, inhalers, nebulizers, and oxygen concentrators to assist people who suffer from lung diseases such as asthma.
Insulin, oral diabetes medication, and diabetes injection supplies to manage care for people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.
Epinephrine injections to provide emergency treatment of severe allergic reactions.
Tetanus vaccines to protect people who sustained burns or puncture wounds from developing lockjaw – a bacterial disease which can become severe if not properly treated.
Anti-infective agents to address a wide range of bacterial infections.
Cardiovascular drugs to treat high blood pressure and symptoms of congestive heart failure.
Gastrointestinal agents for vomiting and diarrhea associated with the norovirus outbreak.
Ophthalmic agents to treat eye irritations and infections.
First aid supplies to treat wounds and orthopedic injuries.
Diagnostic equipment such as blood pressure kits, otoscopes, pulse oximeters, and blood glucose meters and test strips.
Mental health medications to address disorders including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.
Water purification equipment to ensure that people had clean drinking water.
In addition to the provision of needed medical goods and personal care products, Direct Relief has provided emergency funding support to healthcare facilities and agencies in affected communities to cover losses or emergency expenditures; to support medical, behavioral, and social service needs; and to assist with the repair and re-equipping of damaged facilities.
Through April 30, 2019, Direct Relief provided $456,546 in emergency grants to eight health facilities and organizations in California to support their wildfire-related relief and recovery work.
Direct Relief has also provided $668,100 in financial support to city and county fire departments for the procurement of off-road trucks, utility terrain vehicles, fire-fighting and search and rescue tools and gear, and communications devices, to increase and enhance city and county fire department capacity in affected areas.
While the road to recovery will be long, Direct Relief remains committed to those who are struggling to deal with the aftermath of these tragic events and will continue supporting wildfire-affected communities with financial and medical assistance as they recover.