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California Hospitals Confront Growing Wildfire Danger At Disaster Planning Event

Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department
In this Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, flames from a back firing operation underway rise behind a home off Ladera Ln near Bella Vista Drive in Santa Barbara, Calif.

When the Thomas Fire ripped through 280,000 acres near Ventura and Santa Barbara counties this past December, the staff at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital were prepared.

Susanna Shaw, director of environmental safety and security, said they quickly began coordinating shift changes, pulling additional supplies and laying out a system for how to unite lost patients with family members.

And they weren't just treating burns.

“We actually had a lot of poison oak come in with the firefighters out in the backcountry, because it's so hot and they're not getting reprieve,” she said, adding that patients also had  injuries related to smoke inhalation.

At the Disaster Planning Conference for California Hospitals in Sacramento, Shaw warned hospital representatives from across the state that practice and preparedness are crucial, especially as wildfire seasons grow more extreme.

For Cottage Hospital, the fire wasn’t the end of the chaos. Just a few weeks later, the burnt soil paved the way for the Montecito mudslides. Rainwater and debris crashed down the hillsides and into residential areas, flooding the streets with thick brown mud.

Cottage didn’t have to evacuate, but other hospitals did. Shaw said her staff had to plan carefully to maintain the nurse-to-patient ratio required by the state of California. That meant helicoptering in staff who couldn’t drive to work.

Shaw said it’s crucial that all hospital emergency plans include having extra supplies on hand, contacting state and federal agencies for supplies and funding, and being able to cancel elective or non-critical cases as necessary.

“You have to walk the walk,” she said. “You have a certain personal accountability to be sure your plans are in place, so you’re ready to help where needed.”

Even when hospitals aren’t near the fire, there’s also the added risk of electrical failure, which can wreak havoc on medical equipment. Hussain Bhatia, supervisor of the Seismic Compliance Unit with the Office of State Health Planning and Development, said hospitals need to regularly check that their generators are working.

“You could have evacuation because you lose normal power and your emergency generators are not able to switch to supply the facility,” Bhatia said.

Copyright 2018 Capital Public Radio