WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
A language gap in wildfire disaster response can severely threaten California’s growing Spanish-speaking community.
The firestorms that struck California in 2017 changed everything for Gabriela Orantes. In the early morning hours of October 9, 2017, her phone pinged. The junior college had sent an emergency alert. Alarmed that classes were canceled, Orantes hopped onto Facebook to discover the growing threat of the Sonoma Complex Fires. She wasn’t within an evacuation zone, but much of her Sonoma County community was.
She threw extra chairs, shoes, and blankets into her car and drove to a nearby shelter to help however she could, including translation. Orantes speaks both Spanish and English. Though she had never experienced an active wildfire before, she knew shelters would need this service. More than 26 percent of the county is Latinx, yet translation isn’t always available when disaster unfolds. It’s a necessary tool to calm the anxieties and fears of residents already ostracized by a society that often ignores their native tongue and, consequently, them.
In California, where more than 44 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home, translating wildfire alerts and updates could quite literally save their lives. Those Sonoma Complex Fires destroyed nearly 5,300 homes across the more than 87,000 acres that burned in the county. For weeks, the region has witnessed a similar horror story unfold as the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, which is largely contained now, burned more than 360,000 acres across five counties, including Sonoma. The current wildfires ravaging the West have given the world a glimpse of what the climate crisis has in store for us all: At least 33 people have died across California, Oregon, and Washington. In California, at least, some households never received evacuation alerts.
“We believe that people have a right to receive vital information in the functional language that they choose, and that’s not always English. That needs to be something that all disaster management emergency officials take into account because that should be a right, that people receive information in the language that they are most comfortable in and that function best for them.”
For years, local, state, and federal agencies have been trying to improve how they communicate updates in non-English languages, but critics argue they have yet to meet the needs of non-English speaking communities. That’s where people like Orantes come in. As the just recovery fellow at the North Bay Organizing Project (NBOP), a local group campaigning for the rights of marginalized Sonoma County residents, Orantes now focuses much of her work on what she calls “language injustice.”
“The fires of 2017 really laid bare the language gaps that existed,” Orantes said. “NBOP is not a disaster response organization necessarily, but we’ve had to become one in the past three years .”
She still grows emotional recalling that smoky October day. She remembers buses arriving full of elderly people from local care homes. Only a few of them were joined with sons and daughters who came looking for them some hours later, relieved to find their parents safe and alive. She remembers the face masks she picked up to protect survivors from the smoke in the air, as well as the local restaurants that donated meals to provide survivors some comfort. Orantes recalls the lack of signage in Spanish, a simple gesture that may help survivors feel welcome in a strange temporary home. That day left her heartbroken, but it also left her invigorated to secure her community the resources it needs the next time disaster rolls around.
“We believe that people have a right to receive vital information in the functional language that they choose, and that’s not always English,” Orantes said. “That needs to be something that all disaster management emergency officials take into account because that should be a right, that people receive information in the language that they are most comfortable in and that function best for them.”
Little Progress, Large Gaps
The 2020 wildfire season will go down in history. Forever. The blazes have made exceedingly clear that the climate crisis is here and that world leaders are failing to take enough action to prevent the loss of life.
Orantes has been on weekly calls with county officials since March when the COVID-19 crisis gripped the nation. The calls are meant to advise officials on how to strengthen their COVID-19 response within Spanish-speaking communities, but the information shared is also relevant to when wildfires break out, a different kind of disaster.
Despite the many phone calls and hours spent offering guidance, Orantes still sees language gaps this wildfire season. She acknowledges that, at least in Sonoma, agencies have improved compared to even three years ago. For instance, government experts now talk regularly on the radio stations that locals trust to share incident updates or inform residents on how to prevent wildfires. This came after community requests. Agency websites, including Sonoma County’s, feature some press releases and evacuation information in Spanish.
Is that enough, though? No. Not nearly.
“[The state is] still failing in terms of language access,” Orantes said. “And that’s not to discredit. There are a lot of good amazing people in our disaster response entities, but as a system, as a whole, there are still gaps that community organizations, and community leaders, and grassroots efforts are meeting because the system is still full of gaps and not accounting for everyone.”
In 2017, these gaps left Latinx residents feeling fearful and uncertain, according to a 2018 report from international organization Internews assessing the needs of Spanish speakers during that disastrous season. Many families didn’t even receive emergency alerts, and others couldn’t communicate with police officers who were ordering evacuations in person. As a result, families avoided shelters like the one Orantes was volunteering in out of fear that immigration enforcement may be there.
What the report made clear is that these communities need a source they can trust. When you’re undocumented or even a documented immigrant, the government isn’t exactly an entity you can trust—especially under Donald Trump. It’s on government officials to build that trust. That has to happen long before a wildfire breaks out if they wish to protect members of the public, as is their duty.
“Culturally, a lot of it has to do with trust,” said Jeannette Sutton, an associate professor at the University of Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity. “The big fix is committing to infrastructure. The second big fix is committing the personnel and resources to spend time on these things… The non-expensive ‘quick’ fix, which is not quick, is building relationships and making sure that those who are trusted can reach out to those who lack the digital resources, and that takes time. That’s not a quick fix.”
Faith-based organizations and community groups can step in here to help share information because many residents already trust them. NBOP, for instance, helped to develop UndocuFund, a mutual aid fund, in collaboration with other local organizations to provide financial relief to undocumented immigrants in the region who can’t receive formal federal dollars.
The fund has received grant dollars from across the U.S. As of March 2020, the fund has raised and distributed more than $7 million to over 4,000 families. Through the fund, community leaders have also been able to gather data on this vulnerable population to learn more about its needs and housing situations, which can better inform disaster response.
TV and radio stations play an important role too. These are where Spanish speakers turn to first. They’re what this community trusts. Suheily López Belén, a meteorologist at the Univision Weather Center, has been covering the wildfires in the West with the goal of educating her viewers. Even if people receive alerts in their language, they might not always understand what they mean. That’s why López Belén centers her work on education.
“More than get information as soon as possible, people need to know their risks, need to know how to prepare their properties in case of extreme fire weather,” López Belén said. “This will help to make the best decisions before, during, and after the emergency. Knowing the information as soon as possible complements that, and therefore we can save lives and properties.”
Non-English speaking communities need a long-term solution, though. Six of California’s top 20 largest fires have occurred this year, highlighting the acceleration of the climate crisis. Communities, as well as agencies, have less and less time to prepare for these disasters.
“With the shorter and shorter times between disasters these days, it’s tough to implement the changes we know are needed in order to make sure people have the information they need,” said Jesse Hardman, founder of the Listening Post Collective at Internews, who co-authored that 2018 report. “You don’t get five years in between devastating wildfires anymore to try and test new strategies.”
Without such strategies, the consequences can be severe. That’s especially true for Latinx communities in California who are vulnerable when wildfires explode in the state. They are more likely to rent, which puts them at increased risk should a wildfire destroy their home. Latinx are also disproportionately exposed to wildfire smoke and extreme heat conditions through their jobs. Across the U.S., Latinx make up huge chunks of the construction and agriculture workforces. California is no exception, especially not with its multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry. This population already faces health disparities through higher-than-average asthma and diabetes rates. All that smoke only makes matters worse.
This doesn’t even include the immediate consequence of missing critical evacuation information that may inform residents of what to take with them or where to go. The long-term effects of these wildfires are just the cherry on top.
“People, they lose their homes, livelihoods and, in the worse case, they may actually lose their lives,” said Shanna Edberg, the director of Conservation Programs at the Hispanic Access Foundation, which frames conservation issues with a lens on the Latinx community. “They don’t have that government support buffer because of this lack of connection and lack of language access.”
If these gaps remain for Spanish-speaking parts of California, imagine the work left to do among other languages. After all, the state is full of people who speak Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Armenian, and even Indigenous languages from Latin America. They deserve access to information, too, and that work has barely begun.
Few Resources, Less Diversity
Like most problems in the world, this language injustice all boils down to resources. In California, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) has been trying to improve, but the department ultimately needs more bilingual speakers on staff to meet the community’s needs. And, well, that requires money. California is dealing with a $54 billion budget deficit due to the coronavirus’ hit on the economy, and it’s struggling to find the funds to even maintain essential wildland firefighters to extinguish these wildfires.
Information access won’t improve without more bilingual speakers across local, state, and federal agencies. Even Fernando Herrera, a captain with Cal Fire, knows that. He’s been in fire services for more than 40 years. When he first joined the agency decades ago, he didn’t see many Spanish speakers like him on the team. He’s not a rarity anymore, but the lack of fluent Spanish speakers and writers has been a challenge. He gives a monthly Spanish radio interview to keep folks across the state up to date, but he sometimes has to drive across county lines for similar interviews.
“[The intensity of this fire season] is challenging… It taps the resources that you currently have,” Herrera said. “For example, it taps me because I’m one of the few in this area down here, and so it makes it extremely challenging for me to be at multiple places at one time to get that information out.”
Despite that, he feels confident that the agency is doing “a good job” informing communities. The way he sees it, the agency is doing the best it can with the resources it has. The lack of resources available makes this all the more complicated, of course. The Hispanic Access Foundation tries to alleviate some of the stress on government agencies by bringing potential hires to them. It offers an internship program between budding Latinx leaders in the land management sector and federal agencies such as the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife, and the Forest Service.
“Right now, there are so many fires going on in California. If you need somebody to give out a bilingual message, we’re stretched so thin, not only on firefighting resources, but sometimes, it’s overhead resources. And time is always of the essence when we’re on these fires.”
That’s how Keila Vizcarra got her start as a public information officer with the Angeles National Forest. She’s had this job for two years now, and her latest responsibilities involve giving press interviews and writing up updates and reports for the Bobcat Fire—all in Spanish. The translation work is almost like a second job, she said. That’s kinda the problem. It’s not exactly a priority, and she’s not always able to translate every tweet or incident brief in Spanish. That work can take more time, and every minute counts when these wildfires break out. The biggest challenge she sees? “Resources and time.”
“Right now, there are so many fires going on in California,” Vizcarra said. “If you need somebody to give out a bilingual message, we’re stretched so thin, not only on firefighting resources, but sometimes, it’s overhead resources. And time is always of the essence when we’re on these fires.”
Despite the challenges, Vizcarra loves this part of her job. After all, she’s here to serve the public. Serving her fellow Latinx is especially rewarding. She wants her Latinx peers to know that the Forest Service is looking out for them and cares about them, too. The work she’s doing is but a taste of what non-English speaking communities need.
What communities fully require—at the very least—is inclusion in alert systems, multi-lingual alerts, and Spanish-speaking police officers. Until agencies can offer them all of that as a bare minimum, this vulnerable population will continue to be one step behind its English-speaking neighbors. Simply for not speaking sufficient English. As the climate crisis rears its ugly red head into the Pacific skyline, advocates such as Orantes see how little time is left to address this.
The language a person speaks shouldn’t determine whether they make it out alive.