Senior Living

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Health & Spirit

Poor seniors were likeliest to die as Camp fire raged

Laura Newberry, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Senior Living News

PARADISE, Calif. -- Dorothy Mack had crippling back pain and deteriorating eyesight. Helen Pace used a walker and breathed from an oxygen tank. Teresa Ammons suffered a stroke in 2017 and couldn't drive.

Although each woman had a different frailty, their final circumstances were strikingly similar: They were all seniors on fixed incomes, they all lived alone, and they all died when the Camp fire roared through their mobile home park.

Experts say the incineration of Paradise, a sleepy town of 27,000 nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, is a case study in what can go wrong when a landscape that's prone to wildfire is disproportionately populated by those who are least likely to escape.

Like the women who died in Ridgewood Mobile Home Park, most of the 86 people who died in the fire were seniors. Of the 69 bodies that have been positively identified, 53 were over the age of 65 -- or 77 percent.

This grim fact comes as no surprise to those who study the impacts of wildfire.

The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that older adults are more than twice as likely as the general population to die in fires. And a quarter of Paradise residents had a disability, which is more than double the statewide rate.

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Decades of research confirm that the physical limitations that accompany advanced age make it much more difficult to escape disaster, but so do the social isolation and stubbornness that experts say are common among the elderly.

And when poverty accompanies old age -- as it did for many in Paradise, an affordable retirement enclave in a region gripped by a housing crisis -- the risk of death is compounded.

Now, as planning and policy officials attempt to draw lessons from the extreme loss of life and property in Paradise and surrounding Butte County towns, advocates say that emergency preparedness needs to be expanded in a way that addresses issues specific to those seniors who are drawn to live in areas of high fire risk.

"We have to fundamentally change our approach to emergency management," said L. Vance Taylor, chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs at the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. "The old way isn't enough to meet this new normal, this new dynamic."

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