California wildfires left the disabled in peril

The charred remains an electric scooter sit outside a destroyed home after the Valley fire struck Middletown.

The charred remains an electric scooter sit outside a destroyed home after the Valley fire struck Middletown.

(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Marian Bunting, 72, has Parkinson’s disease and a caretaker. She had not smelled smoke, nor had she received official warning about the Valley fire, when a neighbor came pounding on the door of her Lake County home and told her she needed to leave.

Though she moves slowly with a walker, Bunting managed to load her cat into the pickup she rarely drives, and wound up living in the parking lot of a Red Cross shelter.

“I have a person who takes care of me,” she said. “But he wasn’t around when it was time to go.”


Others had no way out. As the fire progressed, loved ones deluged the sheriff’s dispatch with calls, reporting those who were bedridden, without cars, standing in the roadway with pets — nearly all of them alone.

“Elderly female alone with Alzheimer’s, will not know to leave,” read one dispatch entry logged just before midnight on Sept. 12, 11 hours after the Valley fire began its manic progression.

Communication, evacuation and sheltering are key areas in which the disabled elderly, and others with what are known in government and advocacy circles as “access and functional needs,” require special attention.

The still-evolving area of disaster preparedness took hold after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — when nearly three-fourths of those who died in the New Orleans disaster were older than 60 — and captured the attention of California officials two years later after two San Diego County wildfires. It is now viewed with urgency as the state increasingly goes gray, particularly in rural counties.

Of 4.8 million Californians who identify as disabled, about 30% are 65 or older. In Calaveras County, where the Butte fire began to rage Sept. 9, 20% of residents are seniors, the highest proportion in the state, according to census data. Lake County is not far behind with 18%, compared with 11% for the state as a whole.

And as ashes smolder, those fires, which collectively burned more than 2,300 homes, are providing lessons on what worked and what didn’t.


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“If you don’t shine a light on this issue, it just gets overlooked,” said L. Vance Taylor, chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs at the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “This state is just a tinderbox. We know that if this doesn’t get addressed it’s going to be that much worse tomorrow.”

The office was created in 2008 after widespread complaints by the elderly and disabled over the two San Diego County fires.

Two years ago, Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) pressed legislation requiring that those populations be integrated into every aspect of California’s update to its state emergency plan. Due out two months ago, the update was delayed, Taylor said, “because we’ve kind of gone from disaster to diaster.”

His office in the meantime has urged local governments through its website to better educate vulnerable residents such as Bunting, alert them when it’s time to go, help get them out and meet their needs while they’re homeless.

In Lake County, the fire moved so fast that alerts and evacuation systems broke down, giving county officials no time to deploy accessible vans to ferry out those in need, as they did during two previous fires this summer.

There were deaths: a 72-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis trapped in her home, and three men over the age of 65, two of whom miscalculated the fire and decided to stay put.

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The Butte fire moved more slowly, though both people who died were seniors: a one-legged 65-year-old man who remained to protect his property, and an 82-year-old man who a friend said had become depressed and increasingly immobile.

Almost immediately, the five-county region’s Area Agency on Aging sprang into action.

Primed by experience with Mariposa County’s Rim fire in 2013, staff members reached the providers who deliver home meals, offer community dining to seniors or provide transportation and alerted their own care managers, who got on the phones before they went dead and coaxed clients to leave immediately, said Doreen Schmidt, the agency’s disaster coordinator.

“People were thinking that maybe we were overreacting,” Schmidt said. “But we had been through it. We understood that people who are medically fragile, people who have dementia, it’s harder to get them out. … We thought, ‘We’re going to do this, even if it doesn’t spread.’”

Common Ground Senior Services, the area’s Meals on Wheels provider, was summoned by emergency officials to aid evacuations with their wheelchair-accessible van, while the local paratransit company deployed a bus. With adult protective services workers alongside them, they evacuated two mobile home parks and a senior apartment complex, Schmidt said.

Then they launched a frantic search for lodging for those too fragile to stay at Red Cross shelters, for batteries to keep oxygen tanks working and more.

Disability rights advocates had been pressing for better disaster planning for years when the 2007 wildfire season in California provided more impetus.

A report by the Pomona-based Center for Disability Issues and the Health Professions noted that the deaf community had not received emergency notifications, those with mobility issues could not be evacuated with their power wheelchairs, and shelters had trouble accommodating those with medical conditions.

“Most disaster response systems are designed for people who can: walk, run, see, drive, read, hear, speak and quickly understand and respond to instructions and alerts,” the report noted.

Plenty has changed. Among the programs launched soon after the report was FAST, or functional assessment service teams. The state Department of Social Services, which oversees the program, dispatched four teams of government workers and volunteers to the Valley fire, where they observed conditions, met residents and figured out what was missing.

For example, there are only five portable accessible showers in the state under contract to the Emergency Services office, and a number of them had to be commandeered from a music event in Southern California and trucked north.

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Winnie Pugh, 85, had reluctantly left her Middletown home, abandoning her power wheelchair and a new electric scooter. Everything burned.

Thanks to a FAST team working with Red Cross and emergency officials, she received a donated power chair — two days after she was assessed but six days after arriving at the shelter.

The state contracts with Sacramento-based Ability Tools for assistive devices, and the organization found two wheelchairs, one for Pugh, in Concord, said Teresa Favuzzi, executive director of the Sacramento-based California Foundation for Independent Living Centers who was on scene for FAST. Two more chairs were scrounged from separate organizations in Berkeley.

Favuzzi was struck by how many people in the disaster zone had been unprepared to make their way to safety. She said these fires offer a teaching moment, much as the 2007 blazes did.

“We’re not there yet,” she said. “We should not let folks perish like this without responding in some way to improve the chances of people like them in the future.”
Twitter: @leeromney


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