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Impoverished, Incarcerated and Out of Breath: How the West Coast Fires Are Affecting Vulnerable Populations

It’s no secret that the west coast of the United States is facing some heat — quite literally. Yet again, fires are sweeping through California, Oregon and Washington state, leaving some people homeless and others to fend for themselves. These wildfires are devastating to all but seem to have some of the biggest impacts on vulnerable populations, such as those who are experiencing homelessness and others who are incarcerated. 

According to Global Citizen, the western states have been dealing with more than 100 fires that have killed more than 15 people, displaced hundreds of thousands, destroyed entire towns and burned 4.3 million acres – which is equivalent to the size of New Jersey. 

Not only are they displacing people from their homes and towns, but these fires are also displacing inmates from their own prisons. Officials are ordering mass evacuations of prisons located in the middle of these fires, except not towards freedom. Instead, they are merging with nearby prisons, resulting in an overcrowded state prison where inmates are sleeping, “shoulder-to-shoulder in cots, and in some cases on the floor,” according to The New York Times. Food is short, restroom facilities few and fights are breaking out between rival gangs. 

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As officials ordered evacuations of about 2,750 prisoners from an Oregon prison in a fire zone, prisoner Kristina Boswell describes the details of the evacuation. According to Boswell, “Prisoners were bound together with zip-ties and loaded into busses in the middle of the night, without their medications or water.” She goes on to state that once they arrived at the new prison, “there was a shortage of mattresses and no chance of social distancing.”

While these inmates are being displaced, those that are experiencing homelessness are left with nowhere to go. In California alone, more than 150,000 people are experiencing homelessness and two-thirds of them are without shelter. People who are experiencing homelessness have been linked to having worse physical and mental health, and higher rates of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and AIDS.

For those without shelter, the harmful air quality is concerning, especially to those who suffer from preexisting health conditions, on top of the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Margot Kushel, the Director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, said, “What we’re seeing is that for people who have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or heart disease, which is very common in homeless populations, is that the smoke worsens those symptoms or those problems and makes it harder to breathe.” 

Air pollution can be the root of many deadly health effects, especially severe respiratory infections. According to Global Citizenwildfire smoke can have instant harmful health effects. Researchers found that ambulance dispatches for respiratory and cardiovascular conditions increased within only one hour of exposure to poor air quality during wildfires. As cities in the west coast increasingly face unhealthy air quality, the people experiencing homelessness are at more of a disadvantage compared to the rest of the population. In order to combat some of these issues, local fire departments have been handing out masks to those experiencing homelessness to protect themselves from both the smoke and COVID-19. Unfortunately, many shelters still remain closed due to the pandemic or have limited capacity at this time. 

As these fires continue to spread through the west coast, vulnerable populations are left defenseless. People experiencing homelessness are left with nowhere to shelter themselves. In addition, prisoners are being transferred to overpopulated prisons with a lack of resources. These west coast fires truly seem to be showing their residents no mercy.     

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Lily Borror is a senior at Florida State University studying English Education with hopes to teach English as a second language abroad after she graduates. Some of her passions include reading, hiking, traveling and doing just about anything outside. In her free time you can find her reading for class, listening to music, or embarking on late night drives with the windows down.
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