Even though San Diego County was spared massive wildfires in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic complicated the few fire evacuations that did occur and officials are taking steps now to make sure that doesn’t happen again. 

One of the biggest challenges was trying to keep evacuees safe from the spread of COVID-19, which meant finding them hotel rooms rather than sheltering them in school gyms, community centers and other large indoor spaces that have been the source of disease outbreaks after fires in the past.

Why this matters

San Diego County is at high risk for disasters, from wildfires to earthquakes. COVID-19 has added a layer of difficulty in responding to them, prompting changes to evacuation plans to avoid crowding.

When the Valley Fire — the region’s biggest blaze last year — erupted in East County, officials said disaster workers had to scramble to find enough hotel rooms to shelter some of the thousands of people forced to flee.

The use of hotels was a “completely new model, but ultimately, it worked well,” said Jeff Toney, San Diego County’s emergency services director. For emergency workers, he said, “COVID changed everything for us.”

Learning from the Valley Fire, Toney added, his office has now developed a plan to use county workers who usually aren’t involved in disaster response to make sure future evacuees are sheltered safely in small group spaces if there aren’t enough hotel rooms to isolate people during the pandemic.

“It’s something we have to be paranoid about, but I feel a lot better just given we invested so much time,” he said, preparing to avoid spreading the virus.

The scramble during the Valley Fire was partly due to timing: The blaze started on Sept. 5, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, which turned out to be a busy time for local hotels despite the pandemic. Some of the earlier virus-related restrictions had been eased by then.

Flames on Sept. 6, 2020, from the Valley Fire are shown from Japatul and Carveacre roads, southeast of Alpine. (Erik Anderson/KPBS)

Usually 5% to 10% of those forced to flee a fire turn to the American Red Cross for temporary shelter, said Sean Mahoney, CEO for the American Red Cross Southern California Region. Last year, in preparation for wildfires, the Red Cross and county officials identified hotels that would be ready to house evacuees.

But when the Valley Fire pushed 12,000 people in the Alpine area to evacuate, some of the hotels the Red Cross called for rooms were full because of the holiday, Mahoney said.

East County residents waited in their cars at temporary evacuation sites at Steele Canyon High School and Joan MacQueen Middle School, which later was moved to El Capitan High School. 

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One of the first hotels identified as being able to lodge evacuees, the U.S. Grant in downtown San Diego, was not pet-friendly, according to a county after-action report. Some residents who had wanted to shelter with their pets had to be separated, with the pets going to animal shelters organized by the San Diego Humane Society and the county’s Animal Services Department, Mahoney said.

The hotels were so full that to help find places for evacuees the county ended up using hotels it contracts with to isolate people with COVID-19, Toney said.

Mahoney said the Red Cross housed 176 families in 11 hotels and paid for 637 hotel room nights over several days. The fire ended up burning over 16,000 acres and destroyed 30 homes.

American Red Cross volunteer Mark McPherson helps hand out food to Valley Fire evacuees at Steele Canyon High School in Spring Valley, Sept. 9, 2020. (Gary Payne/American Red Cross)

In the Creek Fire, which broke out in Fallbrook two days before Christmas, 7,000 people were forced to evacuate. The Red Cross said it helped over 145 individuals with emergency lodging, though all evacuees were allowed to return home by the end of the day.

“This isn’t going to be the norm,” Mahoney said. “We’re not going to put people in hotel rooms once the pandemic ends. It’s just been a very, very challenging year.”

Even so, he said he’s happy no known coronavirus outbreaks occurred last year following a major fire or other emergency in California that involved the American Red Cross.

But there were staffing challenges. Mahoney said the Red Cross needed more workers to deliver meals and provide other help to evacuees at multiple hotels rather than at one or two big sites.

That’s led the county to sign up its own employees to step in as shelter workers in case of a large-scale disaster, Toney said. He said an evacuation any larger than the one experienced during the Valley Fire would have required the use of multiple group shelters, which require additional workers.

A firefighter shows a map of the Valley Fire to people at a temporary evacuation site at Steele Canyon High School in Spring Valley on Sept. 9, 2020. (Gary Payne/American Red Cross)

Since the Valley Fire, the county has trained around 700 staff for this role, he said.

The county has also started working on tweaks to speed up disaster response and improve communications. The changes were recommended in an after-action report the county recently filed with the state. California requires these after major incidents. 

To protect workers’ safety and save time, one of the virus-related changes is to let some employees start responding from their homes rather than at the county’s  in-person emergency operations center. Other recommendations involve better defining the roles of evacuation site workers and eliminating conflicting information about supply needs.

The report doesn’t mention how much the Red Cross and county paid to help Valley Fire evacuees. But a list of reimbursements the county is seeking from the federal government to cover the costs of the fire show how COVID-19 restrictions add expense to a disaster response.

For example, county nurses and contract nurses provided COVID-19 screenings at the temporary evacuation sites. That cost the county $74,257, according to a preliminary tally.

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Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Camille von Kaenel is an investigative reporter at inewsource focused on growth and development in San Diego County’s backcountry. Her position is partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists, and she's passionate about community service. Born in...