In 2019, Krystal Vasquez stared out an airplane window at a wildfire burning in central Idaho. A PhD student in atmospheric chemistry, she was part of a team studying the composition of wildfire smoke. 

“I was really struck at how massive the fire looked from the sky,” she says.

Growing up in California, Vasquez was used to hearing about fires. But seeing one up close made her think harder about the dangers that fires pose – especially to people with disabilities. 

Vasquez herself has a chronic illness and breathing wildfire smoke makes her symptoms worse. 

“It makes me really fatigued, really achy, really sore,” she says.

The year after that flight, smoke from a nearby wildfire seeped into her home in Pasadena. For two days, she could not walk from her bed to the kitchen without her cane. 

She says many disabled people struggle with mobility more than she does. So some may have a hard time evacuating in an emergency. 

Others may need medical equipment unavailable at a shelter. And people with hearing impairments may be unable to access emergency updates.

So Vasquez says it’s vital that wildfire response plans account for the needs of people living with disabilities and prepare to protect them.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media