'Disaster inside a disaster': California wildfires and COVID-19 form twin crises

'It is manifestly an unsafe situation,' a veteran firefighter said.

8/26/2020 1:15:00 PM

The California LNU Lightning Complex fire has claimed the lives of at least 5 people, burned more than 350K acres and forced thousands to flee their homes.

'It is manifestly an unsafe situation,' a veteran firefighter said.

In what he described as"another risk on top of the other risks," firefighters are also assisting people who have COVID-19.“I've got a wife and three kids, and that’s the hardest part. My kids are scared to hug me on days when I treat COVID patients," Unger said."There’s a bit of distance that our job has created between us and our families. It breaks your heart when you can’t give your little kid a hug."

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Cots are spread out in Crosswalk Community Church in Napa, Calif., on Aug. 24, 2020.Chiara Sottile / NBC NewsThe disruptions caused by the fires have raised concerns about an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission, as evacuees and rescue workers might cluster together.

“Whenever we have people who are in constant contact with one another that don't normally live together, there's definitely a risk of transmission of COVID,” Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said at a press briefing Monday.Napa County has provided shelter services to some 313 people since the fires broke out last week due to widespread lightning strikes, according to Upton. The county has been scrambling to help residents amid what she described as a"disaster inside a disaster."

The plans include a shelter inside the Crosswalk Community Church, just off Highway 29 in Napa, where hundreds of residents forced from their homes have sought refuge in recent days. The church has served as the primary evacuation center for decades; this year is starkly different.

This summer, the cots inside the church's sanctuary are only being used as temporary places to rest instead of places to sleep overnight."Because of COVID, people who are verified evacuees ... are being put up at hotels locally," said Peter Shaw, the senior pastor, who has worked at the church for 20 years and helped with local disaster relief for two earthquakes, two floods and three fires.

"We can usually get a couple hundred people in here, but now we're down to about 50 [cots]," he said, gesturing to rows of empty green fabric cots carefully spaced apart to allow for social distancing.Shaw said the church hands out $2,000 in gift cards every day to people affected by the blazes, most of which are donated by locals.

"Everything dropped off here must be disinfected," he said, surrounded by volunteers and staffers checking in new arrivals and hunched over laptops at folding tables, making phone calls in English and Spanish.Outside the church, under a beige sky thick with smoke, a steady stream of people trickled in and had their temperatures taken, part of screenings for COVID-19. Upton said people who tested positive for COVID-19 or who had been under self-quarantine were moved to a separate space at the shelter.

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In addition to converting its sanctuary to a temporary rest stop, Crosswalk has dozens of cots set up — always six feet apart — inside its gym. County staff members and volunteers from the Community Organization Active in Disaster, or COAD, keep the operation running around the clock in two 12-hour shifts.

But for some residents, the already traumatizing threat of having to evacuate is even more stressful because of the coronavirus. Sonoma County has seen cases spike in recent weeks.Michelle Petersen, a resident of Santa Rosa and a private duty nurse who works in home care, believes a shelter would not be feasible for her family. She has two developmentally disabled children, ages 18 and 21, one of whom is immunocompromised. Her husband is currently undergoing chemotherapy to fight stage 3 colon cancer and spent June in a hospital. One child is diabetic, as is her husband.

“Because of my son and my husband, a shelter would not be good, because it’s a breeding ground for diseases," she said."I'm worried all the time for my family," she added, noting that even limited contact with hotel staff and the logistics of being away from home concern her now.

Peterson said her family was evacuated during two previous California fires — the Tubbs fire and the Kincade fire in 2017 and 2019, respectively. This year, she began making an evacuation plan for the new blaze as soon as it broke out Aug. 17. For the time being, the Petersons are staying at their home, windows closed, to prevent smoke from getting inside.

"We only go out if we have to go out, and it’s usually me who goes out, like for medication," she said.“We just try to go with the flow and make the best we can of our situation. There’s not much we can do to change anything, so we just hope for the best. You just never know.”

Chiara Sottile reported from Napa, California, and Daniel Arkin reported from New York.Chiara SottileChiara Sottile is a producer and reporter covering business and technology for NBC News. Read more: NBC News »

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