James “Jay” Rose woke up on the morning of Nov. 8 to his roommates packing in a panic. It was shortly after 9 a.m., and the entire town of Paradise had just been told to evacuate.
“They’re telling me, ‘We’ve got to get out, there’s fire right over there,’ ” he says. “When I got up, I heard an explosion that rocked the earth. I believe — I’m not sure exactly — but I think it was the propane tanks over at Feather River Hospital.”
Rose’s roommates fled, but he stuck around the house for a little longer.
“I was trying to have some clarity of thought, packing up clothes, my dog bed,” he says.
As the 58-year-old loaded his German shepherd, Lexi, into his truck, he noticed his elderly neighbors were still home.
“Even with all the time I took to get out, they weren’t doing anything over there. Their cars were still in the same place. No one was loading anything,” Rose says. “They said, ‘But the news said the fire is moving south.’ They didn’t want to leave. They were still in their house when I rolled out. They would have had a hard time if they didn’t leave when I did, because it was gridlocked. There’s the last traffic light coming out of Paradise on Skyway, and the fire was raging there. All the houses were already burning and falling down. I could feel the heat coming through the car.
“I don’t know if they ever got out,” he adds, shaking his head. “I’m sure quite a few people who died were older. It’s not just mobility issues — people just don’t want to leave. They didn’t want to leave because this is where they live, and they want to stay there and have something to do with the protection of homes.”
Last week, the Camp Fire decimated the towns of Paradise and Magalia. It was the perfect storm of bad luck: a fast-moving, blisteringly hot fire that devoured 80 acres a minute, a town with only two main roads out, and the collapse of communication systems as the wind and flames took down power lines. One week after the fire started, SF Weekly visited the region to try to make some sense of what happened.
Even after the fire flattened the town, signs of an older population are scattered around Paradise. One of the last standing structures on a major road holds a bowling alley and veterans club. In obliterated residential neighborhoods, lawn ornaments and knick-knacks abound; cement cherubs sit preserved at entrances to driveways, a hand-woven wicker peace sign hangs from a scorched tree trunk, and wind chimes can still be heard in an eerily empty cul-de-sac.
The number of dead continues to climb each day. Each evening, the Butte County Sheriff reports the figures at a press conference held in a cold, smoky room at Chico’s fairground. With more than 1,000 people reported missing, the Camp Fire may be the deadliest natural disaster the state has seen in a generation.
More than a week in, much is still unclear, including the fire’s origin. Residents have not yet been allowed back into Paradise due to treacherous conditions. Fallen power lines block major streets, unstable trees balance on blackened trunks, and bodies are still being discovered in the wreckage of homes and vehicles. But within the first couple days of the disaster, one thing became clear: Many of the missing and dead are people over the age of 65.
The media likes to refer to Paradise as a retirement community. Tucked into the woods 25 minutes outside of Chico, it’s a refuge from city living, but still has the amenities of a town. Before the fire, there were supermarkets, auto-repair shops, diners, and antique shops. Houses were cheap, it was quiet, and people knew each other. It wasn’t a place people went to die, but to live.
Nevertheless the town of 26,000 drew an older crowd; the median age was 50, much higher than California’s 36. There were 15 residential senior homes in 18 square miles, and 25 percent of the city’s residents were over age 65. But as any resident will point out, it had a vibrant young population, as people in their 20s and 30s moved in to take advantage of the inexpensive real estate.
After the fire, its members of that older 25 percent of the population who remain largely unaccounted for. The Butte County Sheriff Department’s first missing-persons list — released six days after the fire — had 99 people on it. Of those, 87 were over 65. Last weekend, the list grew to more than a thousand, and on Sunday, more than 200 of the 400 or so people with ages attached to their name were seniors.
Carole Masson, 68, was one of the many seniors who chose to call Paradise home. She lived on the same street as her niece and sister, and her adult daughter lived a few miles north. When the evacuation order came in, she responded immediately.
“We saw the traffic messes in all the other disasters that happened across the state, and we didn’t want to be stuck on a road with fire coming at us in a motorhome and all that,” she says. “We grabbed all our animals, medications, got in the RV, and got out of there.”
Masson now lives out of the RV with her husband, daughter, and grandson — plus five dogs and two cats. On Saturday, she was sorting through donated clothes and helping her older neighbor, Marjie Hartman, find some sweaters. It’s only been 10 days, and her family is living off credit cards until the insurance claim comes through, but already Masson is brainstorming ways to better evacuate vulnerable populations in the next disaster.
The main problem with the Camp Fire, she says, is that PG&E warned people they were going to turn off the power in the days leading up to it. When it did go out, it was because the fire blew out the transformers and knocked down power lines, but many residents thought it was simply their energy company taking precautions. As landlines are digital now, the minute the power goes down so do the house phones, destroying communication for those who don’t own cell phones.
“We need either some kind of a landline system with remotes in people’s houses, because if they don’t have power they have no phones, no TV,” Masson says. “There were a whole bunch of homeless back in the parks, and there’s no way for them to get any notice. There has to be some kind of a new system device to warn people. I want to work on something — whether it’s old-fashioned church bells that used to ring. … There has to be something.”
The Butte County sheriff’s office says it did send notifications about the fire — albeit by email, phone, and text messages. But even those with access to modern methods of communication scrambled to evacuate.
“I’ve heard stories where some of the nursing homes could only get out so many, and they had to leave the people they couldn’t get out,” Masson says.
That appears to be true for some. Missing-persons signs posted on bulletin boards outside evacuation centers include several former residents of Feather Canyon Gracious Retirement Living, and an L.A. Times article described a harrowing evacuation of seniors from Cypress Meadows Post-Acute center, many of whom escaped in the back of staff’s cars.
But not all senior homes were unprepared. Down the road at the Atria Assisted Living and Memory Care, signs of what appear to be a frantic evacuation are everywhere. Wheelchairs and walkers — some with personal effects, like teddy bears or Mardi Gras beads tied to them — litter the parking lot and rest on their sides near the charred entrance.
Despite the chaotic scene, Atria’s staff were well-prepared for an evacuation. They started packing bags Wednesday night after officials warned that fire conditions were dangerous, a key protocol from their evacuation training earlier that fall. The national chain has 225 senior-living facilities nationwide, and over the last 20 years, the company has developed a solid plan of escape for residents.
“We evacuated during Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, and a lot of the same process went into this,” Communications Director Zach McClure explains. “The difference with a wildfire is you have minutes or hours and not days, like a hurricane.”
Atria’s staff and residents made it out, despite the speed of the fire. On Thursday morning, shuttles picked up the 67 residents and transported them to a hotel in Sacramento, where staff waited to receive them. By Monday, 10 days after the fire destroyed their home, all 67 had found permanent beds in other Atria facilities across Northern California.
McClure says the evacuation went perfectly.
“It was all hands on deck,” he says. “I’m really proud of that team.”
It’s too early in the recovery process to fully understand the effect the Camp Fire had on Paradise’s oldest residents. But as the numbers of missing people fluctuate daily, some names remain on the list. Their ages stand out: 80, 90, 81, and three individuals with the same last name, ages 80, 81, and 83 respectively, The list goes on, and it’s likely that many of the missing will never be found. But in the weeks and months that go forward, other towns in California should be asking the question: How do we protect our seniors the next time the skies light up orange, and the fire moves in?
Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
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