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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

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.

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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."

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