Camp Fire

Institute for Canine Forensics handler Barbara Pence walks with a search dog through the remains of a house in the Ridgewood mobile home park in Paradise on December 14, 2018.

PARADISE – 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 85 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.

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.”

When the Camp fire marched through Paradise last fall, an estimated 25 percent of Paradise-area residents were 65 or older, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates. That compares with 14 percent statewide.

The city had long attracted retirees with limited incomes seeking picturesque surroundings. Many lived in retirement communities such as Ridgewood, a quiet and clean mobile home park surrounded by pine trees.

Some people moved there for the community, said Cathy King, who managed the park from 2014 to the summer of 2018. But most made the choice out of necessity.

That was the case for 68-year-old King, at least.

“You know they aren’t as well made,” King said of mobile homes. “But at the end of the day, you find a place you can afford and hope for the best.”

According to fire officials, mobile homes – particularly those built before tougher building regulations were enacted in 1976 – burn faster due to the materials they’re made from, like aluminum and particle board. And mobile homes in parks have little space between them, making it easy for flames to jump from one dwelling to another.

Of the 53 seniors who have so far been identified as having died in the Camp fire, at least 22 lived in mobile or manufactured homes.

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