SEATTLE – The large wildfires burning in Eastern Washington have prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency in 20 counties. Although this year’s in-state fire season has been quiet, wildfires now threaten homes and businesses.
As state agencies mobilize to help the victims, non-English speakers could be left behind, said Ellicott Dandy, economic and environmental justice advocacy manager of the immigrants’ advocacy group OneAmerica. The state has done a poor job reaching out to immigrant communities in the past to make sure they’re prepared in the event of a disaster, she said.
“There are so many stories of people within Latino communities in Eastern Washington who just didn’t know that there were measures they could take to protect themselves,” Dandy said. “That’s something that we could easily remedy by putting more effort on the front end, to ensure that the messages are getting to them in a way that they understand.”
The 2015 wildfire season burned the most acres on record in Washington. The state received more than $170 million in federal disaster relief, but Dandy said undocumented immigrants and those with visas are ineligible for relief assistance unless they live in a household with a U.S. citizen or have a green card.
Dandy said language is perhaps the biggest barrier to reaching non-English speakers. In the last legislative session, a bill was introduced to mandate that public notices be provided in languages other than English, but it didn’t pass in the House. During last year’s wildfires, Dandy said, relief agencies relied on Google Translate for emergency messages, which led to misunderstandings.
“There was one example of a sign that was posted on a pole,” she said, “and in English it said, ‘Relief Services This Way.’ And then in Spanish, the translation basically told the person to climb up the pole.”
Dandy said resources for translating for these communities is a big issue. She said neither state nor federal agencies have prioritized reaching out to non-English speakers.
Immigrant populations are some of the state’s fastest-growing communities. Dandy said that’s what makes this issue urgent.
“If we can’t figure this out at this point, it’s never going to get any easier, and the demand is never going to shrink,” she said. “So, I think it is imperative that we figure out how to efficiently and cost-effectively translate especially emergency warnings.”
Details of the legislation, House Bill 2926, are online at lawfilesext.leg.wa.gov.
Advocates for Washington’s immigrant community say the state hasn’t prioritized getting disaster warnings or relief information to non-English speakers. (USDA/Flickr)
Eric Tegethoff is a journalist covering the Northwest. Eric has worked as a reporter for KBOO, XRAY FM, and Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, Oregon, as well as other print and digital news media. In 2012, Eric traveled to North Dakota to write about the Bakken region oil boom. He's also worked at a movie theater, as a campaign canvasser and quality assurance at a milk packaging factory. Eric is originally from Orlando, Florida. He graduated from the University of Florida in 2010.