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Many of the dead in Camp fire were disabled. Could they have been saved?

Tony Bizjak, Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks, Phillip Reese and Molly Sullivan, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

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.

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"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.

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