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How the pandemic has reshaped San Diego County's wildfire plan

Northern California fires have revealed challenges
Posted at 6:17 PM, Sep 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-02 01:03:45-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — It’s been a historic wildfire season in California, made even more complicated by the pandemic.

Emergency officials in San Diego County continue to shore up evacuation plans and brace for the worst, as more than a dozen wildfires in Northern California reveal the challenges of responding to two crises at once.

As tens of thousands of Californians fled the wildfires last month, some turned to a shelter at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. But with new rules in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the shelter quickly filled up.

The Civic Auditorium reached capacity August 21 and had to turn some evacuees away. The shelter remains at capacity, according to Cal Fire.

About 27,000 people remained under evacuation orders as of Tuesday, according to Cal Fire. The Red Cross and partner organizations were sheltering more than 4,500 Californians in various settings as of Monday night.

The Red Cross has put some displaced residents in hotels, a strategy that emergency workers in San Diego County are planning to emulate.

“The county, since the beginning of the pandemic, has been working really proactively to identify and contract with hotels and motels to meet the unique housing and lodging needs of our community members,” said Senior Emergency Services Coordinator Julie Jeakle.

With help from the Red Cross, the county has amassed a list of nearly 100 hotels and motels in San Diego County that could be called upon as emergency shelters. Some of these hotels were previously tapped as quarantine sites for individuals exposed to COVID-19.

Traditional shelters in gyms or at schools won’t go away, but they’ll look different. Red Cross volunteers will conduct temperature checks and health screenings. People who show symptoms will be taken to another location to isolate, Jeakle said.

“Individuals can also expect to see individually packaged meals, instead of the cafeteria style-meal service we’ve traditionally provided in the past,” she said. “They may also see some health and behavioral health services provided virtually.”

But what if there’s a widespread event, with tens of thousands of evacuations like in Northern California?
In the early days of the fire in Santa Cruz County, several hotels filled up. The county had to urge tourists to leave so evacuees could get access to rooms.

San Diego County has turned to the Mission Valley stadium site for mass evacuations, including during the 2007 Witch Fire. But that site is currently under construction, and emergency responders would need permission from the stadium’s new owner, San Diego State.

Another option: the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The fairgrounds was used as a large animal shelter four times in recent history: 2003, 2007, 2014 and 2017. But in 2007 it also hosted people, and Jeakle said the county had been in recent talks with the venue.

Determining which site -- or sites -- will serve as an evacuation shelter will be based on several factors, including the size and severity of the emergency, Jeakle said.

“We’re certainly here to serve if and when we’re needed,” said Del Mar Fairgrounds marketing director Jennifer Hellman.

Hellman said the fairgrounds would have procedures in place requiring mask-wearing, social distancing and increased cleaning, and there would be hand sanitizer stations deployed throughout the site.