Desconectado: How Emergency Information Got Lost In Translation During The Northern California Wildfires

The 2017 wildfires in Northern California were referred to by Governor Jerry Brown at the time as potentially the “greatest tragedy that California has ever faced.” While the 2018 Mendocino Complex fire is the largest fire in California history, last year’s fire remains the most destructive. More than 5,600 structures were destroyed, damages exceeded $2 billion, and 44 people lost their lives. Like the majority of residents in the affected region, many Latino community members experienced devastating loss. Theirs, however was exacerbated by a lack of access to emergency and recovery information in their primary language, Spanish.

Latinos comprise almost a third of the population in the North Bay region, with up to a quarter of them undocumented. This population struggled to get news in Spanish on where the fires were spreading, how to stay safe, and how to access aid and services. Misinformation and rumors made it even more difficult – including stories about shelters asking for valid picture IDs and social security numbers, and that an undocumented Latino man had caused the initial fire. “We didn’t have any electricity or water,” said a young woman from Sonoma. “We were really afraid to ask for help because we did not know the language.”

This assessment aims to understand the challenges the Spanish-speaking population faced in accessing information during the fires, reasons for the lack of information in Spanish, and consequences of not having information in one’s primary language. It also offers some insights and suggestions for how to address this issue, to both continue recovery from the 2017 wildfire season, and to prepare for future disasters.