Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on September 1, 2016.

Everyone Gets Out

Considering the needs of the elderly and people with disabilities in wildfire evacuation


A SERIES OF WILDFIRES THAT BURNED across California in June had a recurring and heart-wrenching theme: residents dying in their homes or on their property. In the Erskine Fire, as reported by the Los Angeles Times and later by The Washington Post, an elderly couple, Byron and Gladys McKaig, was found dead in a corner of their yard, their bodies embraced in each other’s arms. The couple had succumbed to smoke inhalation as Byron, 81, a retired priest, and Gladys, 90, the organist in the church, tried to evacuate.

Evacuation is unique in wildfire because, unlike hurricanes that pass or flooding that finally recedes, wildfires can turn on themselves, smolder, or cast embers and smoke far from the shifting source. It’s not always clear in wildfire events when you are free from danger. We cannot know the particulars of how and why the McKaigs left their home when they did, but it made me consider how the difficulty and confusion of evacuating during a wildfire can be compounded for the elderly and for those with disabilities.

NFPA’s Disability Access Review and Advisory Committee, or DARAC, recently released the second edition of the “Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities”, a document that provides valuable insight into this challenge. The guide goes through the general categories of disabilities and the evacuation elements, such as notification, way finding, and assistance, that occupants need to be prepared for in an emergency. In addition to crafting the guide, the advisory committee explores statistics around disabilities and tries to influence both advocacy and standards development to better reflect the needs of all residents.

The statistics collected by DARAC include populations and circumstances beyond what I initially considered a “disability,” and it opened my eyes to the enormous challenges faced by these populations. Based on the 2010 U.S. Census, of the nation’s 313 million people, 56 million have one or more physical or intellectual disabilities. That includes those people with disabilities that aren’t visibly apparent; for someone with a heart problem, for instance, leaving quickly and unexpectedly may prove very difficult, even though they can appear physically fine. In addition, there are approximately 38 million people over the age 65 and 5 million over the age of 85, as well as about 50 million under the age of 14. Added together, almost half the U.S. population falls into these groups where, because of age or a disability, evacuation during a wildfire may be particularly challenging. And that doesn’t even include the homeless or those in hospitals and institutions.

Considering all of it raises a number of questions. How many of these vulnerable residents own cars, rely on public transportation, or have someone to drive them around? Having elderly relatives, I know the level of planning required for something as simple as the Wednesday grocery run. What kind of planning would it take to safely evacuate them when smoke is in the air?

The populations of elderly and disabled are not fringe groups. We all know there’s a good chance we’ll be part of at least one of those groups at some point in our lives, an inevitability that cuts across all social and socio-economic strata. In a wildfire, we also know that we cannot assume a fire truck will be parked in each driveway. Responsibility falls upon individuals to plan and protect themselves, but also on society in how we help our more vulnerable populations with education and planning to ensure the elimination of death in wildfire.

LUCIAN DEATON is project manager in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division. Top Photograph: Reuters