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Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News September 2019

Making a plan now can help you safely evacuate during a wildfire in the future

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In many areas of the country, the summer heat is beginning to taper off, but that doesn’t mean the danger of wildfires is diminishing, too. 

Wildfires can occur anywhere, so it’s important for people, and even more so for those with disabilities, to have a plan in place in case they are forced to evacuate their home.

Former Paradise, Calif., resident Ellen Beauregard found out just how critical preparation can be when last year’s devastating Camp Fire swallowed her family’s home and all of their possessions. The swift-moving fire, which California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials determined in May was started by malfunctioning electrical transmission lines owned by Pacific Gas & Electric, burned more than 153,000 acres in Butte County north of Sacramento and killed at least 85 people before being contained on Nov. 25, 2018.


On the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, Beauregard, a Paralyzed Veterans of America Bay Area & Western Chapter member, woke up to take her then-8-year-old son, Rhys, to school. 

“I went outside, and I could tell there was a fire somewhere because you could tell the glow, the lighting was off,” says Beauregard, who served in the Marine Corps from 1996 to 2000 and has an autoimmune disease and several other impairments.

When she found out school had been canceled because of the fire, she turned around and started toward her home, realizing on the way back that she needed to get gas for her car. 

“I went to leave in my car to go fill it up, and I drove out our street and when I looked to the left, I could see the glow had changed to a stronger glow with a lot of brown smoke, and I could see it more clearly than I could approximately 10 minutes before,” she says. 

Beauregard says she keeps a “bug-out” bag of supplies within easy reach during fire season, but while attempting to load a pet cat into her car, she lost track of the bag, along with some of her art pieces, baby pictures and USB drives with important documents that were inside it. She says there was no time to gather food, clothes, water, blankets or medical supplies. 

Because the telecommunications infrastructure had been destroyed in the fire, she never received any official alerts to evacuate, but she heard from neighbors and relatives how close the fire was and that they needed to leave.

“It was pretty chaotic, how quickly the skies changed, the smoke came in,” she says. “I knew we were going to hit major traffic trying to get out of there, so it was just a matter of planning your exit route, I guess, knowing which way the wind was blowing, trying to seek an exit that’s higher elevation as opposed to lower.”

Although they eventually made it to Chico, Calif., she says she learned to never let her gas tank fall below half full.

 

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