Preparedness & Recovery

California Firestorm Took Deadly Toll on Elderly; Average Age of Victims Identified so far is 79

Among the dozen people identified by Sonoma and Napa county officials as of late Thursday, the average age of those who died was 79. The youngest victim was 57, the oldest 100.

by Alene Tchekmedyian and Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times / October 13, 2017
Firefighters douse hot spots in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. An onslaught of wildfires across a wide swath of Northern California broke out almost simultaneously then grew exponentially, swallowing up properties from wineries to trailer parks and tearing through both tiny rural towns and urban subdivisions. AP/Ben Margot

(TNS) - As authorities begin to identify those killed in the wildfires raging across Northern California, a grim pattern is emerging.

Among the dozen people identified by Sonoma and Napa county officials as of late Thursday, the average age of those who died was 79. The youngest victim was 57, the oldest 100.

“The bulk of them are in their 70s and 80s, so there is that commonality,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano told reporters at a news briefing.

A majority were found inside their homes, unable to escape as the fire bore down. At least one was confined to a wheelchair. Another was lying next to a vehicle.

The trend highlights a risk for elderly people when a natural disaster strikes: Health problems may limit mobility. They may no longer drive, and often live in areas with unreliable cellphone service.

In Sonoma County, where most of the fatalities occurred, 18% of the population is over the age of 62, compared with 11% for all of California.

“With any sort of disaster … the elderly may not have transportation, they may not have access to evacuate as fast as possible,” said Sonoma County spokesman Scott Alonso. “They may be wheelchair-bound, they may have access issues — those folks may take more care to evacuate safely.”

That’s why, he said, police officers were going door-to-door Sunday night alerting people to get out. But he said it’s too early to tell whether the elderly were disproportionately affected.

That was the case two years ago when the fast-moving Valley fire ripped through Lake County and took the lives of four people. They were a 72-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis trapped in her home, and three men over the age of 65, two of whom decided not to evacuate.

The Butte fire that year didn’t spread as quickly, though the two people killed were seniors: a one-legged 65-year-old man who stayed home to protect his property and an 82-year-old man.

A 2008 report criticized disaster response systems in California. The state Department of Social Services subsequently launched functional assessment service teams, which consist of government workers and volunteers who deploy to shelters to observe conditions and identify what’s missing. The teams assess the needs of seniors and those with disabilities, working to get them the services and equipment they need.

On Sunday night when the Atlas fire erupted, Sara and Charles Rippey were home in Napa with their caretaker, Maria. Strong winds made the lights flicker. Maria looked out the back window and saw that the home’s fence was on fire.

She ran to lift Sara, 98, out of bed and onto her wheelchair. Charles, 100, was in the hallway.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

In a matter of minutes, black smoke had filled the house.

Maria called out to Charles, but there was no response. Without electricity, she could not open the garage door to get Sara out.

She jumped over a collapsed fence and escaped, just before the roof crashed down. Neither Sara nor Charles would survive.

Their son said their family was struggling with the tragedy, but they also felt a sense of peace that the couple died together.

Sara’s health had severely declined since she suffered a stroke five years ago. Charles never left her side, not even to grab dinner with their son, who visited two to three times a week.

Earlier this week, Vice President Mike Pence said it’s “heartbreaking to think that many of the fallen represent our most vulnerable, in some cases senior citizens who simply were not able to escape the flames that overcame their homes.”

“They are in our prayers,” he added.

As of late Thursday, about 400 people remain missing in Sonoma County.

In the days after the fires erupted, family members described agonizing efforts to search for their elderly loved ones.

Theresa Brandi searched for more than 24 hours for her aunt and uncle, 90 and 92, who live in a community for older adults in the Oakmont neighborhood of Santa Rosa.

She called their cellphone at least 100 times, she said. Nearby hospitals had been evacuated, so she couldn’t call them. She dialed shelters, checked the Red Cross website for updates and filed a missing-person report.

“He’s not in the best of health and she’s not, she’s got back problems,” Brandi said. “He can’t even go down the block sometimes.”

She worried they left their cellphone behind, forgot her number — or worse.

“That is what is just terrifying — to hear nothing,” she said. “Nothing at all.”

The couple’s neighborhood was spared, and eventually Brandi found her aunt and uncle at an evacuation shelter. They hadn’t reached out, she said, because they didn’t want to bother anyone.

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

Twitter: @AleneTchek

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