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Wildfire Prep: Amid A Pandemic, Are Evacuation Centers Safe?

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Smoke hangs over the city of Scotts Valley, California, in the Santa Cruz Mountains on Aug. 20, 2020. A series of fires, called the CZU Lightning Complex, have led to the evacuation of approximately 77,000 people from several mountain communities, including Scotts Valley, Boulder Creek and Bonny Doon. (Anna Maria Barry-Jester/KHN)
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As the twin disasters of COVID-19 and fire season sweep through California, thousands of residents are weighing difficult options, pitting risk against risk as they decide where to evacuate, whether from imminent flames or the toxic air.

What's the right choice when all options pose additional risks?

Many counties have implemented new precautions at emergency shelters to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In Santa Cruz, for example, officials are scaling back the capacity in each shelter to allow for social distancing, providing tents for people to use as shielding inside and allowing camping in the parking lots.

Still, staying in a shelter should probably not be your first choice. In terms of COVID risk, deciding between a hotel and a friend’s house is “nipping at the edges,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, while “being in a congregate setting is only better than being completely exposed to the elements.”

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If an evacuation shelter is your best immediate option, again, do not hesitate. “You have these standards you want to practice for yourselves,” Swartzberg said, “but when something worse comes along, it trumps how careful we can be with COVID because the need for shelter is greater.” You can lower your risk of infection by wearing a mask, washing hands frequently and sanitizing surfaces.

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