Many of the Dead in Camp Fire Were Disabled. Could They Have Been Saved?

Burnt out wheelchairs are all that remain from a senior care facility from the Camp Fire Thursday Nov. 15, 2018 in Paradise, Calif. (Renee C. Byer/The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

December 6, 2018

By Tony Bizjak, Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks, Phillip Reese and Molly Sullivan

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Sixty-three-year-old Ernest Foss had swollen legs and couldn’t walk. Vinnie Carota, 65, was missing a leg and didn’t have a car. Evelyn Cline, 83, had a car but struggled to get in it without help.

Dorothy Herrera, 93, had onset dementia and her husband Louis, 86, couldn’t drive anymore. And 78-year-old John Digby was just feeling sick the morning of the Camp fire when he refused a neighbor’s offer to drive him to safety.

An unsettling picture is emerging in the fire-charred hills of Butte County: Many of the at least 85 people who perished in the raging Camp fire on Nov. 8 were elderly, infirm or disabled.

They may not have had the physical strength, presence of mind, or perhaps the desire to save themselves — even as tens of thousands of their neighbors in Paradise and other hill towns fled as flames destroyed the world around them.

Some may have been unaware the inferno was headed their way. Others may have hunkered down, hoping the fire would spare them.

Advocates for society’s vulnerable say the emerging portrait of death in Butte County’s Camp fire is not a surprise.

“Over and over again, it is mostly people with disabilities and aged, they are the ones being left behind,” said Christina Mills, executive director with the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers. They are the people more likely to use walkers and wheelchairs than cell phones and cars.

Could they have been saved? Will California be better prepared to help its vulnerable residents when the next fire hits?

The questions are urgent. California is dealing with killer wildfires unseen in past years as well as extended fire seasons that stretch into late fall. The next fire season is just seven months away.

In the last two years, four of those wildfires have stormed into hillside cities in their first hours, taking scores of lives. Last year it was Santa Rosa, this year Redding, Paradise and Malibu.

Death tolls skewed toward the disabled and old are not unusual. It happened in Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast 13 years ago. It’s happened in other California wildfires. But Butte County’s Camp fire, which wiped out most of the city of Paradise, may provide an exclamation point.

Some 9,500 residents in the Paradise area had a disability, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2012 to 2016. That’s about 25 percent of the population, more than double the statewide rate.

The fire’s speed caught emergency officials and residents by surprise.

Butte County’s social services director Shelby Boston said her staff that morning quickly began dialing names on a list of about 1,500 people on the hill who were enrolled in the county’s In-Home Supportive Services program, which helps elderly and infirm people remain in their homes despite disabilities.

But the effort was hopelessly overmatched before it even started.

The fire ignited about 6:30 a.m., sweeping quickly into the hamlet of Concow and throwing embers into Paradise, igniting homes and causing propane tanks to explode.

“By the time my staff could make those calls, the fire had already run through the areas we were most concerned about,” Boston said. “You cannot plan for this sort of large scale disaster. This is beyond what anyone could have imagined could have happened.”

As the fire raged in Paradise, her staff shifted gears and abandoned their calls, focusing on helping evacuees with special needs and others who had made it out and were looking for shelter instead.

Another Butte County safety effort appears to have come up short. The county’s Special Needs Awareness Program includes reflective placards that disabled people can put in their window during an emergency to alert passing police and fire officials that someone inside needs help.

Only 300 people had signed up for the program prior to the fire, according to Cindi Dunsmoor, head of the county Office of Emergency Management. Asked last week if anyone had put a decal in his or her window that morning and been rescued, Dunsmoor said she did not know.

On the streets of Paradise, state firefighters and Butte sheriff’s deputies appear to have been similarly overmatched.

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said strike teams hit town that morning — five engines each with an SUV in the lead — with a first priority of rescuing residents. McLean himself found an elderly woman rolling down a street in a wheelchair with a puppy in her lap. He put her in his truck and drove her to a hospital.

In the chaos of the moment, though, it was catch as catch can, he said. “Everybody is a priority. No one is less of a priority.”

Some of the most vulnerable were miraculously saved, piloted to safety amid flying embers by heroic neighbors, family, healthcare providers or strangers. Good Samaritan stories abound. Media accounts have told of garbage truck driver Dane Cummings plucking 93-year-old Margaret Newsum from her wheelchair on her front lawn in Magalia and strapping her into his truck for a ride down the hill as flames consumed her neighborhood.

There have been questions and confusion, though, about what official county alerts went out that morning and to whom. Some evacuees and family members of elderly deceased people say they don’t believe their loved one got any official warning, and that no one knocked on their doors.

Butte Sheriff’s officials did send alerts in the form of calls, emails and texts to people who had signed up for the county’s CodeRed system. That system is voluntary, however and became overwhelmed early in the emergency. Butte officials this week did not respond to a Sacramento Bee request for the number of Paradise residents who were on the CodeRed system. The county this summer was pushing for people to sign up.

The sheriff’s department also has so far declined to say whether it sent alerts on what is called the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) network. Those alerts, like Amber Alerts, go out to cell phones of anyone in the general fire area, likely including some people who were not in the direct fire zone.

Officials in recent wildfires have debated when to use that system, some arguing the system’s broadcast could cause unnecessary panic in non-evacuation areas, and jam roads with extra cars.

Vance Taylor, who oversees the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services “access and functional needs” office, which focuses on disability issues, says he believes the system should be used whenever wildfires threaten people.

“Everything I’ve ever seen or read, you cannot over alert,” he said. “I don’t want to Monday morning quarterback, though. We have to wait a little before we can figure out what happened versus (what) should have happened.”

Carolyn Nava, who lived for years in Paradise and works in Chico at the Disability Action Center, pointed out that some elderly and infirm don’t have smartphones and that cell service around Paradise is notoriously spotty. “If you weren’t standing in a certain spot, facing the east with your foot pointing to the north, you wouldn’t even have gotten wireless anyway.”

Disabled advocates say the elderly and infirm who fared well were those who had neighbors, friends, family or service institutions committed to helping them.

One of those institutions, Butte Home Health and Hospice, began calling its several dozen homebound clients in Paradise as soon as staffers got CodeRed alerts on their phones, getting them assistance.

One of those callers, Corrie Logan, described harrowing moments with one elderly client who has respiratory issues and relies on oxygen tanks.

First responders knocked on the woman’s door, but she sent them away, telling them to save someone else because friends from Chico were coming to get her. But those would-be rescuers then called to say they had been blocked. They couldn’t get to her.

The woman was terrified, Logan said. “Honey,” Logan recalled her saying. “It’s black and it’s dark outside.”

Logan called 911, but the dispatcher was abrupt: We can’t help, Logan said she was told.

Logan called the woman back: Go out front and yell, she urged.

“Honey, I’m on oxygen. No one will hear,” the woman said.

“Bang pots and pans!” Logan said she shouted. “I was shaking. I had tears in my eyes.”

A neighbor showed up. He didn’t offer a ride, though. He helped the woman get into her car’s driver’s seat with an oxygen tank and pointed her down the hill. She has neuropathy in her feet and hadn’t driven in months, Logan said. But she drove, for hours, and survived.

Somewhere along the way, another Good Samaritan spotted her stuck in traffic and struggling to breathe. He came to her aid, switching out her depleted oxygen tank for a spare she had in the car.

Logan says she is in awe of the client. “She’s so brave,” Logan said. “So brave.”

While the fire’s speed was a shock, its existence was predicted.

A Butte County hazard mitigation plan, published in 2013, concluded it was “highly likely” that a wildfire would severely damage up to 50 percent of property in the town of Paradise. A county-sponsored survey that year found 80 percent of Butte County residents were either very or extremely concerned about wildfires.

In 2008, thousands of Paradise residents were evacuated twice when wildfires scorched parts of town. One of those fires destroyed 87 homes, according to Cal Fire. News media accounts tell of traffic jams on the town’s few escape routes. Evan LeVang of the Disability Action Center in Chico recalls officials saying if the winds had been different, the situation could have been much worse.

Butte County has two detailed documents on its website offering advice to disabled people in advance of a disaster. The documents were not locally produced, and are not locally specific. One was published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the other by the county of San Diego.

The Butte County Fire Safety also mailed out several brochures this year offering disaster and evacuation advice, pointing out that two main roads would be turned to one-way in a major evacuation.

Dunsmoor, the county’s emergency services chief, said county officials have preached disaster preparation and offered advice at community meetings. The core of that advice is stark, though: Mobility-challenged people need to arrange beforehand for not one but several “guardian angels” to help get them out.

“I stress get to know your neighbors, you may need each other,” Dunsmoor said.

Dunsmoor said if there had been more time, the county had planned to have designated public assembly points — listed on the county emergency services website — where people could gather to be picked up in vans or buses.

“That strategy was in the making, but unfortunately the fire was too fast,” she said.

Butte Hospice director Robert Love said, though, that type of planning is problematic in secluded mountain hamlets, where some residents are isolated with minimal contact with neighbors. That is especially true if they are housebound, and even if they live within shouting distance of neighbors.

“There has to be attention toward the isolated in our society,” Love said. “These folks … maybe they weren’t tied into the community, or into a social network, and they most certainly weren’t tied in from an electronic standpoint.

“We need an emergency response system that is comprehensive and that reaches — somehow — those even who are isolated.”

But some elderly don’t want to be a burden to others. And some in the hills are stubborn, distrustful of strangers, and fiercely independent, advocates say. Some who are unhealthy may fear the uncertainty and turmoil outside more than the risk of hunkering down in their home.

That may have been the case with 78-year-old John Digby. Digby, a retired postman living in the Pine Springs Mobile Home Park, had chronic pulmonary disease, and was sick that day. He refused to leave when a neighbor knocked and offered to drive him out.

Another woman’s refusal to budge hangs heavy on her daughter’s mind.

Christina Taft and her mother Victoria were together in their home on Copeland Road that morning in when a neighbor knocked, telling them to flee. But the elder Taft, who was blinded by glaucoma, refused to go. Daughter and mother argued.

“I don’t know if she was confused or denying it (was) actually coming,” the daughter said later. “She didn’t want to go outside.”

The pair had not received any robocall, evacuation notice or door knock from law enforcement officials, Taft said. Any one of those may have been enough to persuade the elder Taft to go, her daughter said.

So Taft left by herself, hoping authorities would force her mom to leave if needed. The sky was black, but sheriff’s cars on the street whizzed by without blaring sirens, adding to the eerie but tense calm at the moment.

Later, when she realized the immensity of the danger, Taft frantically called 911, but believes that no one went to her mom’s aid. On Thanksgiving morning, Butte officials confirmed that the remains found at her house were her mother’s.

“How can you ignore the older people?” she said, furious over authorities being unable to save her mother. “Just because they’re old doesn’t mean they’re worthless.”

The Camp fire was historic. But Paradise and its environs are not unusual in California. The state’s rural hill towns and secluded homesteads are often bordered by burnable terrain and are populated with retirees, poorer residents and people with mobility issues.

As California’s firestorms mount, Taylor, head of OES Office of Access and Functional Needs, said he wants a deeper dive into how the state and counties can protect that population group.

Under state law — AB 2311 of 2016 — counties must take into account “access and functional needs” people in its disaster planning, including communications and evacuations in emergencies. That law, though, is brief and does not set detailed standards, not does it specify how much focus, money or details a county should put into those efforts.

By law, that “access and functional needs” population are people with physical, developmental or intellectual disabilities, chronic health conditions or injuries, limited English proficiency, older adults, children and low income households, homeless and/or transportation disadvantaged, and pregnant women.

Taylor of the OES said he will sit down with Butte County to review what happened in the fire. “We have to push forward,” he said. “It is a partnership. It’s not something one town, county or even the state can do on its own.”

Asked by The Bee last week if she will request a report on many of the dead were disabled or infirm, Butte County social services chief Shelby Boston choked up. “This is raw,” she said. “This is my community.”

Resident Amber Lee wonders what government will do now. She drove her elderly mother from the fire that morning, making frantic turns on sidewalks to get back to her mom to pick her up. She said she’s frustrated by what feels like a lack of planning by local officials.

“We can never as a community say that this is the new normal,” she said. “We need to … realize that this could be another town really soon. We have got to get people’s brains coming together so this won’t happen again.”


©2018 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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