The Butte and Valley fires burned simultaneously in Northern California and scorched nearly 147,000 acres combined in September 2015. Six residents died, four firefighters were injured and thousands of lives changed forever.
Four of the first five reported fatalities were individuals with either a disability or an access and functional need. Thousands were also displaced from their communities, a high percentage of those were elderly or disabled.
In response, Vance Taylor, Chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs (OAFN) at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), developed a plan to assist those with disabilities and access and functional needs inflicted by the wildfires.
The plan included working with the American Red Cross to ensure accessible shelters; securing accessible showers, restrooms and hand-washing stations; utilizing interpreters at town halls, press events and recovery centers; and also coordinating with local agencies to provide accessible transportation to shelters, local assistance centers and disaster recovery centers.
“Vance’s passion and expertise is not only a great asset to Cal OES, but it’s also invaluable to those on the front lines of a disaster,” said Mark Ghilarducci, Director of Cal OES.
For his contributions to the Butte and Valley fires, Taylor was presented with the 2015 Outstanding Leadership Award by the Emergency Medical Services Authority (EMSA) and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).
“Access and functional needs is personal for me, but I work hard to make sure others recognize that it’s personal for them, too,” said Taylor, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a child and uses a power chair. “Disability and injury are a part of the life experience and, sooner or later, each of us (and those we love) will be touched by it. And when that happens, we want to make sure needs are identified and integrated within everything we do. When disasters strike, we want to ensure we’re prepared to meet those needs in a timely, inclusive and dignified way.”
The Butte Fire charred 70,868 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties and destroyed a total of 921 structures including 549 homes, 368 outbuildings and four commercial properties. The Valley Fire in Lake County consumed 76,067 acres, destroyed 1,330 homes, and nearly 1,900 businesses and agricultural buildings were damaged.
In the aftermath – and in the case of the Butte and Valley disasters – survivors with disabilities are often provided with power chairs, manual wheelchairs, walkers, canes, rollators and other assistive technologies due to a partnership with resource providers including independent living centers, disability advocacy groups and various stakeholders.
“When Governor Brown declared a disaster, he gave us the charge to lean forward and be proactive in meeting our mission,” Taylor said. “Director Ghilarducci emphasized that same point every day. I tried to emulate their example and as a result, others followed and good things happened.”
Twenty-six years ago today, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, a catalyst in Cal OES establishing OAFN in 2008. Aside from Taylor’s response to the Butte and Valley wildfires, his day-to-day responsibilities consist of ensuring the needs of individuals with disabilities and persons with access and functional needs are identified before, during and after a disaster.
“It’s always nice to be recognized for your work,” admitted Taylor. “But it’s particularly nice when the recognition highlights the incredible mission we all work towards; integrating and meeting the needs of the whole community.”