Fires, Winds, Earthquakes, Disabilities, and Emergency Response Teams in California

Early last week, when I was unable to reach my son, but was aware his home was mere blocks from a hot-spot of the fire and evacuation zone, I took the only action I could. I called his support staff, a manager, and the Regional Center.

By Keri Bowers

Last Monday, the Thomas fires erupted in Ventura County, California to become one of the most devastating fires in our State’s history. At present, the Ventura fire, and it’s 4 related fires, continue to rage. As of this writing having burnt over 230,500 acres, there is currently only a mere 15% containment.

Within days of the initial Ventura County fires, smaller, but still destructive flames engulfed other areas of Southern California including a blaze that was mere miles from one of the Art of Autism’s main business hubs. With winds sometimes gaining speeds of 60 miles per hour, dry brush in our hills and valleys, and a lack of rain is lethal fuel for the fire’s reach.

In the midst of the fires, Southern California has experienced many-many small earthquakes. None of the quakes had serious impact to structures or human life, however, for those of us already not sleeping who were awake to feel them were already stretched to our emotional boundaries. The quakes only added more vulnerability with rumblings beneath our already weary feet and exhausted emotions.

While most of the smaller fires are now contained, the raging Thomas fire continues to spread throughout Ventura County, continuing North to expand towards the Santa Barbara County line. Ventura County is the birthplace of The Art of Autism, and is also another hub for the work we do at AoA behind-the scenes. In this emergency, we are boots-to-the-ground-aware of the peril to our most vulnerable population, children, the disabled, the sick, and elderly.

The fire which has now burned hundreds of homes and structures, continues to force evacuations and intermittent road closures. In the wake of this devastation, we are mindful of those who have lost their homes; permanently and temporarily. Our community is responding to this with an outpouring of love and donations. This is one of the finer things about people; when the crisis arises, we follow our hearts in brave and selfless ways.

Sadly, however, many are radically affected by displacement (evacuations), air and water quality, and significant sensory issues that impact many, including their families and caregivers. Many of these individuals are served by our California State Regional Center System. In Ventura’s case, our center, Tri-Counties Regional Center (TCRC), oversees vendored support services in 3 counties. TCRC clients include my son, Taylor, who lives in his own home with supports in Ventura, in the epicenter of the flames.

Early last week, when I was unable to reach my son, but was aware his home was mere blocks from a hot-spot of the fire and evacuation zone, I took the only action I could. I called his support staff, a manager, and the Regional Center. While the fire continued to eat the natural fuel of dry brush at the rate of a football field per minute, I stayed calm to get the 411 on the evacuation plan. There was little I could do to recover him without help.

Here’s what I found… While there were indications of mobilization to respond at 7:30 a.m. I was told there was no way to reach Taylor. 10 calls had been placed to no avail. He finally responded to a friend’s invitation in social media to Uber (at her expense) out to her home in a safe area about 40 miles away. So, he was safe, and I, deeply relieved.

Since the fire started, dozens of agencies serving our counties’ disabled immediately joined in to support round-the-clock efforts to coordinate fire related activities; safety checks; evacuation supports, placements, medical care, and food. Efforts in part, included regular outreach to residential and day program facilities, individuals living independently (as my son does) and the families who have a loved one living at home served by various agencies.

Efforts included working closely with transportation providers to ensure all in need would be safely evacuated. Though not a perfect system by any means, no one went to my son’s home to check on him for example because they had hundreds of clients to account for, they worked their tired asses off to do their best under untenable circumstances.

While the fire rages, I was called this weekend by concerned staff for my son. They are now questioning his ability to live safely on his own. A meeting this week will determine what their next steps are to ensure an improved safety plan is put in place for his specific needs. This fire has illuminated many things for many people, none the least of which is future safety, response, loss, and importantly, what matters most in this precarious life.

The Art of Autism’s heart goes out to all the victims of this fire, and other world events that hurt so many.

If you or a loved one have been affected by the Thomas fires, please check these current resources for the latest fire and evacuation information in Ventura County. www.readyventuracounty.org

For the latest fire and evacuation information in Santa Barbara County, go to www.countyofsb.org

For the latest information available on the TCRC website, go to http://www.tri-counties.org/index.php/news/health-information/1086-emergency-resources

KEYT News Channel 3 on Facebook has been covering the news minute to minute.

For those who have autistic family members you can call the Autism Society of Ventura at 805-496-1632‬ and ‭805-437-9856.

Sharon Francis has started a GoFundMe page for families of special needs families effected by the Thomas Fire.

If you have other resources, please list them in the comment section below.

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