Responding to Disaster: Best Practices and Lessons Learned from the 2017 North Bay Fires

Here are some of the lessons learned from the 2017 Northern California wildfires in hopes that it will help translators and interpreters better serve their communities in the event of a natural disaster.

“Wake up, Santa Rosa is burning!” In the late evening hours of October 8, 2017, this frantic message was heard over and over again, echoed by police officers, firemen, and neighbors. However, not everyone understood the message. For many of Santa Rosa’s extensive Latino community, this first night of horror was just the beginning of a frightening and confusing time that was greatly exacerbated by a lack of timely information in Spanish.

“I think Sonoma County is a great place to understand that language access is the difference between life and death in these kinds of situations.” (Alegría De La Cruz, Sonoma County Chief Deputy Counsel)

The effects of global climate change, making headlines across the planet, have resulted in an increase in severe weather events. Access to timely and accurate information during these events can literally be a matter of life and death. Translators and interpreters can play a critical role in bringing lifesaving information to non-English-speaking communities. But even if you’re ready and willing to use your linguistic skills to help, knowing where and how to be of service during an emergency can be a challenge.

This article was inspired by my experiences during the 2017 wildfires in Northern California that killed over 40 people, devastated over 200,000 acreas, and destroyed over 8,000 homes and businesses, including entire neighborhoods, in my hometown of Santa Rosa. My hope is that what I learned during and after the fires will be helpful to other translators and interpreters in the unfortunate event that a natural disaster occurs in their community.

As the severity and magnitude of this tragedy became apparent, my first thought was “How can I help?” I desperately wanted to make a difference, but I had no idea where to start. I vividly recall driving around town in the smoke-filled air, running into police roadblocks and detours as I tried to make my way to the Red Cross registration center and other sites where emergency assistance was being provided. As I stood in an hours-long line to register as a volunteer, I learned my first big lesson of disaster preparedness:

Lesson #1: Don’t wait until an emergency strikes to register with the Red Cross or other disaster-response agencies. Volunteers can only be mobilized quickly in a community if they are pre-registered and trained. The need is often the greatest during the first hours and days of a natural disaster.1

After an afternoon bagging pears at a local food bank wishing that I could be more useful, I had a moment of clarity. I was listening to the radio on my way home and realized that all of the emergency updates I was hearing and seeing on the news were in English. I thought, “Who is communicating all of this vital information to the non-English-speaking members of our community?” It was then that I realized my Spanish translation and interpreting skills could probably be put to good use. But I still had no idea where to plug in my skills or where I could be most useful.

After a long and frustrating day of dead ends, I finally found my entry point to be of service when I saw a plea for translators and interpreters on a social media post from our local deputy public defender. She had informally stepped into the role of language coordinator when she realized no such position existed in the county’s emergency response plan. By responding to her request, I was able to connect with the county’s public information officers, who immediately put me to work translating public safety and health announcements, CalFire updates, and other pressing communications.

Lesson #2: Connect with your county’s public information officers prior to an emergency, provide your contact information and skillset, and ask to be contacted in the event of an emergency to provide language access services.

Although it felt gratifying to finally put my language skills to work, I quickly realized that my work translating these materials was just the tip of the iceberg. Our county was not prepared to address the enormous scope of language access needs in those critical first days and weeks of the fires.

Lesson #3: Research your town or county’s emergency response plan prior to an emergency to determine if it includes a language access plan, and if there are policies and procedures in place to implement it. If these aren’t in place, partner with local community-based organizations that support immigrant rights to begin the process of advocating for the inclusion of a language access plan.

Despite a large population of non-English-speaking community members of different ethnicities, our evacuation centers and local assistance centers weren’t staffed with interpreters. The lack of qualified interpreters made it difficult for these community members to access health care, information about safely returning to homes in areas affected by the fires and cleanup efforts, or to get the assistance they needed to apply for disaster relief or find temporary housing.

Lesson #4: Advocate for the creation of a cohesive, centralized bank of vetted, qualified interpreters and translators who can be mobilized when needed. If this isn’t happening at the county level, work with your local interpreting association or local ATA chapter. Social media groups of professional translators and interpreters are also great places to organize ahead of time.

“If no information is provided, that gives the opportunity for misinformation.” (Bernice Espinoza, deputy public defender and criminal immigration specialist)

The quote above refers to the spread of rumors that immigration agents were present at evacuation shelters and relief centers. To add fuel to the fire, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) falsely accused an undocumented immigrant of starting the wildfires, creating an even more combustible atmosphere of fear and mistrust of authority figures. This resulted in widespread reluctance among undocumented evacuees to seek help and shelter due to fears about ICE. Many of these evacuees fled the city to camp on beaches or sleep in their cars rather than in the evacuation shelters, where they feared government agents would round them up. Because these concerns were not anticipated, proactive efforts to combat the spread of misinformation were not made.

Lesson #5: Partner with trusted community-based organizations to help further proactive efforts to ensure that all community members feel safe and welcome in local evaluation shelters. These efforts need to be addressed ahead of a disaster, not during.

Up until this point, we’ve largely discussed the actions that your community can take as a whole to be better prepared in the event of a natural disaster. But what else can you do, as an individual, to prepare yourself? What follows are some additional suggestions based on my experiences.

Lesson # 6: First, make sure your own home and loved ones are safe. With that as your foundation, establish some boundaries to maintain your well-being. In our eagerness to help, and fueled by the adrenaline of an emergency situation, it’s easy to burn out. Find the balance between helping and taking care of yourself and your family.

The old cliché “put your oxygen mask on before assisting others” holds true in this situation. In the various presentations I’ve given on this topic, only a handful of people raise their hands when asked if they have a family emergency plan in place. When my daughter and her husband had to evacuate their home in the middle of the night during the fires, they showed up on our front doorstep at 3:00 a.m. with their pets, a set of Harry Potter books, and a basket of bathing suits and winter hats! In the panic of the moment, there’s no time to make critical decisions about what to grab.

Lesson # 7: Pack a “go bag” with three days of supplies for each family member. Have animal carrier and leashes easily accessible. Make a list of irreplaceable valuables and paperwork and ensure they’re stored in an accessible manner. Taking these easy steps will give you peace of mind and ensure you have the basics covered if you should have to evacuate. There are many great resources online for family preparedness plans.2

Lesson # 8: Think ahead to the types of natural disasters to which your region might be susceptible and gather vital safety supplies ahead of time (e.g., respirator masks, inflatable rafts, water purification tablets, etc.).

After having volunteered as an interpreter in a number of different situations after the fires, including working shifts at a Local Assistance Center (LAC), a Red Cross shelter, and interpreting during community forums, I realized the need for flexibility, quick thinking, and creative use of portable simultaneous interpreting equipment. At a Latino community forum, for example, instead of the speakers presenting in English and the audience wearing portable headsets to hear the interpretation in Spanish, bilingual representatives of local agencies such as the sheriff’s office, firemen, and elected city officials spoke in Spanish. Interpreting was provided to the rest of the officials who only spoke English. When the speakers were monolingual English, the interpreter had to step into consecutive mode in the “speaker role” with the microphone and abandon the simultaneous transmitter.

Lesson # 9: If you’re called to assist in an unfamiliar environment, it’s vital to be able to step out of your comfort zone and adapt to quickly changing circumstances. If you’re used to interpreting in a conference booth, for example, you might literally have to step out of the box and be prepared to adapt using a variety of different strategies. I found it invaluable to own a set of portable simultaneous interpreting equipment, as not all settings have access to this equipment, which can be used in a variety of ways.

One of the biggest challenges for me, as a translator and interpreter who works primarily in the health care field, was dealing with very specific fire disaster terminology. Finding glossaries and other resources in advance would have saved time and eased the stress of the quick turnaround needed for the CalFire reports, which came in at various times of the day and night due to rapidly changing conditions.

Lesson #10: Locate and research terminology related to the disasters most likely to occur in your area ahead of time. Another valuable resource is Doctors without Borders, who are ready and willing to jump in with translation help during a crisis.3

My experiences during the 2017 wildfires in Sonoma County made it clear how a lack of preparation, at both the personal and community level, can exacerbate the challenges of a natural disaster. In these times of climate uncertainty, what we can count on is that these unfortunate events will occur with increasing frequency. There’s so much we can’t predict or control about when and where the next natural disaster will occur. What we can control, however, is our own level of preparedness and the degree to which we’re ready to be of service to our communities by putting our valuable language skills into action. Further, as a language access advocate, you can play an important role in your community by working with others to help your town or county ensure that language access is included in their disaster response plan.

  1. Information for volunteering with the Red Cross can be found here:
  2. Information on how to make an emergency plan can be found here:
  3. Doctors without Borders,

Julie Burns is a veteran interpreter trainer with 20 years of experience in health care interpreting and translation, as well as extensive experience in health education and training in Latin America and the U.S. She is a certified medical interpreter (Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters) and a certified worker’s compensation medical interpreter (State of California). She is also an ATA-certified Spanish>English translator. She has an M.Ed. in adult education. She is the former director of the Bridging the Gap Interpreter Training Program and has trained thousands of interpreters. She has served as a board member for the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care, International Medical Interpreters Association, and California Healthcare Interpreting Association. She is the 2018 recipient of the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care Language Access Champion Award. Contact:

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