As a massive pillar of smoke spewed ash and debris over the Inland Empire, Ken Reich found himself in the silent gymnasium of Beaumont High School, a designated evacuation center for the Apple fire. It was Monday morning, and the place was empty, despite orders from law enforcement for nearly 8,000 residents to flee their homes.
“This is an unusual situation for us,” the Red Cross spokesman said. “For the first time, we’re setting people up in hotels instead of a shelter, where coronavirus could be a real problem.”
With more than 26,000 acres scorched by the growing wildfire, emergency officials have been scrambling to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks among evacuees and firefighters. The decision to essentially abandon traditional evacuation centers has drastically altered a Southern California routine. Officials note that while it has historically been difficult to get residents to evacuate their homes in the face of approaching flames, the pandemic threatens to make the process all the more challenging.
With the threat of infection on many people’s minds, Reich said, the agency had “come up with a very expensive Plan B … funded by the generosity of the American people.”
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