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California Wildfires

Fires Blaze Past Historic Records in California, Prompting Unprecedented Response

California and other states continue to endure massive wildfires dotting the West.

The view from a Mendocino County Sheriff's vehicle shows the billowing smoke of the August Complex Fire on the Trinity County line in Northern California on Oct. 3, 2020. The fire is one of a dozen burning across California, impacting air quality and displacing residents. (Photo courtesy of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department)
The view from a Mendocino County Sheriff's vehicle shows the billowing smoke of the August Complex Fire on the Trinity County line in Northern California on Oct. 3, 2020. The fire is one of a dozen burning across California, impacting air quality and displacing residents. (Photo courtesy of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department)

With more than a dozen fires currently burning in California, the state reached a grim milestone Monday – more than 4 million acres have burned this year, doubling the previous historical record.

With thousands evacuated and the health impacts of smoke, displacement, and the ongoing pandemic converging, Direct Relief has been responding to the medical needs of communities most impacted.

So far this wildfire season, Direct Relief has supported more than 30 health centers, public emergency response offices, and county health departments across California and the Western U.S. with more than 80 deliveries of protective gear, respiratory aids, ophthalmic products, tetanus vaccines, and other requested medicines and supplies.

As the fires rage on, requests remain high for medical supplies for patients with breathing issues – like asthma, often exacerbated by the thick, toxic air accompanying the blazes.

Respiratory medications, like albuterol and inhalers, are in currently high demand from local health providers, as are N95 respirators to filter out smoke, said Leighton Jones, U.S. Director of Emergency Response for Direct Relief. Air quality continues to register as “unhealthy” in many parts of the state.

The sun breaks through the smoky atmosphere in the Angeles National Forest during the Bobcat Fire on Sept. 27, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Angeles National Forest)
The sun breaks through the smoky atmosphere in the Angeles National Forest during the Bobcat Fire on Sept. 27, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Angeles National Forest)

Another concern, compounded by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, are the health impacts facing evacuees. When residents are forced to evacuate, care for chronic conditions may be interrupted. If evacuees experience a disruption in their insulin supply or medicine for high blood pressure or asthma, once-manageable conditions can quickly escalate, prompting an emergency room visit, even as local health systems reach critical capacity.

On Monday, Jones outlined a few of many shipments departing for health providers on the frontlines of the devastating fires.

California

In Napa and Sonoma Counties, the Glass Fire has destroyed nearly 500 homes across both counties, and more than 70,000 people have been told to evacuate.

One health center serving evacuees is OLE Health, a federally qualified health center, in Napa County. The health center has four locations throughout the area, including in Calistoga, just east of where the Glass Fire began. The town’s 5,000-plus residents have been told to evacuate, and Direct Relief is processing shipments of medical aid to assist with OLE Health’s efforts.

Ongoing shipments of medical aid have also been reaching the Santa Rosa Community Health Center in neighboring Sonoma County, where fire activity has been extensive, and devastating, in recent years. The Tubbs Fire, which ravaged Sonoma County in 2017, was one of the state’s deadliest, killing 22 people and destroying more than 5,600 structures.

Direct Relief worked extensively to help the health system in the area rebuild, including cash assistance to the Santa Rosa Community Health Center, which recently completed a rebuild of one of their health sites after the Tubbs Fire destroyed the facility. The health center has received medical supplies during the most recent fires, and local health providers have expressed concern about mental health and post-traumatic stress of residents experiencing a series of fires and disruptions to community life.

In Butte County, site of the 2018 Camp Fire, the state’s most deadly on record, residents are still rebuilding and recovering from that blaze, even while dealing with a new one. The North Complex Fire has killed 15 and more than 2,400 structures have been damaged or destroyed.

Late last week, a Direct Relief shipment departed for the Butte County Public Health Department, via that county’s Emergency Operations Center, Jones said. Ampla Health, which operates a health center in Yuba City, also received a shipment of masks and respiratory medications.

Masks depart for Ampla Health in Yuba City, which is currently being impacted by wildfires. The shipment was one of dozens to depart Direct Relief's warehouse last week in response to the 12 fires burning across the state. (Tony Morain/Direct Relief)
Masks depart for Ampla Health in Yuba City, which is currently being impacted by wildfires. The shipment was one of dozens to depart Direct Relief’s warehouse last week in response to the 12 fires burning across the state. (Tony Morain/Direct Relief)

Also in Northern California, Mendocino Community Health Center requested respiratory supplies last week from Direct Relief. A shipment of N95 masks was sent to the center, which is dealing with the effects of the August Complex Fire. The shipment also contained albuterol to address breathing issues, like asthma, that patients may be experiencing. After losing power during previous fires, the organization recently undertook efforts to install back-up power to continue patient care during an emergency.

In San Benito County, Emergency Medical Backpacks were also sent and arrived Monday. The backpacks, which contain first aid-type medical supplies to treat patients outside clinic walls, will equip EMS teams responding to emergency calls throughout the county.

Oregon

Six major fires continue burning in Oregon, and Direct Relief is coordinating closely with the state’s Department of Public Health. Three wildfire kits, which contain medicines and supplies often used to specifically treat wildfire-related health concerns, were shipped to the agency.

Emergency Medical Backpacks were also sent, as well as 100 stethoscopes and 100 blood pressure cuffs. Medical aid to the state has been ongoing, and an airlift of essential medications took place recently for distribution across the state.

Looking ahead

California still has two months to go in its traditional fire season, and with many residents still out of their homes and navigating personal loss, the impacts of this year’s blazes will extend long beyond containment efforts and suppression tactics.

Direct Relief will continue to respond in coordination with responding agencies to meet the needs of those in its home state of California, and throughout the West.

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