National News

After a Wildfire, Rebuilding Life Can Be Hardest for the Oldest

Posted November 25, 2018 6:50 p.m. EST

CHICO, Calif. — The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, the Camp Fire, was finally brought under control by firefighters Sunday after raging for 17 days. But for many people left homeless by the fire, the most frightening part of the disaster is just beginning.

The hardest-hit community, Paradise, California, was a popular place to retire, with more than one-quarter of its residents 65 or older, according to census figures. Many of them have now lost everything late in life and must start over from zero, often with little support and with major health challenges.

After a battle with throat cancer, Daniel Cayer wears a tracheostomy tube, breathes through a hole in his neck and speaks through a device pressed to his cheek. He had been living alone in a trailer park in Paradise, and had planned to celebrate his 72nd birthday with a barbecue on Nov. 8, the day the fire started. But a plume of black smoke that morning scotched those plans, and soon the flames were in the trees near his home.

He had to go — but where?

Cramped emergency evacuation shelters can be dangerous for older people with health conditions like Cayer. Infections can spread quickly, like the norovirus outbreak that sickened nearly 150 fire evacuees last week.

But Cayer said he had no family to turn to instead; he hasn’t spoken with his daughter in 15 years, he said, nor with his sons in 30 years. So he’s been sleeping in a camper outside a church shelter in Chico, the first place where many fleeing Paradise have taken refuge — and where, because of the fire, the air quality has ranked among the worst on the planet.

“Most people would put on a mask,” Cayer said through his speech device. He pointed to the hole in his throat. “I can’t.”

Many of the thousands of structures in Paradise and surrounding parts of Butte County that were lost in the fire were nursing homes, assisted living facilities, other geriatric care centers or mobile home parks catering to retirees. Roughly 2,300 residents of the fire zone had relied on in-home health aides, according to Shelby Boston, county director of employment and social services.

“There were a lot of people who were barely able to make it at home, and those are the people that tend in situations like this to make their way to the shelters,” said Dr. Andy Miller, public health officer for Butte County. Some patients with memory issues and the early stages of dementia have had their conditions made worse by the chaos of evacuation and by losing their daily routines, he said.

Coping with the aftermath of such a disaster can be daunting enough at any age, but for those in their 70s and 80s, it can seem almost impossible. “Half of them don’t have it in them to start all over again,” said Mari Stewart, nursing supervisor for the clinic at the East Avenue Church in Chico, which has been turned into a shelter. Disasters can go on taking a heavy toll long after the initial crisis has passed, experts say. “Being cut off from your medicines, being cut off from your medical care, being cut off from your social supports, the added stress of having lost things and living in an evacuation center and having to relocate — studies clearly show that there are additional hospitalizations that occur, even deaths that occur, in the months afterward,” said Dr. David Eisenman, director of the UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters.

When older people are displaced, he said, “for them to not be allowed to rebuild and live in their community again might produce a kind of harm that’s much greater than if you or I or younger people had to rebuild and move away.”

By the time the Camp Fire was declared contained Sunday, it had burned more than 153,000 acres and destroyed more than 18,000 structures, almost 14,000 of them residences, with hundreds more damaged. The death toll for the fire stood at 85.

Most of the 500 evacuees who have been in and out of the East Avenue Church shelter since the fire began have been older people, said Ron Zimmer, the church’s pastor. The challenge, he said, is not just caring for them, but finding long-term answers for people who have lost everything and have little wherewithal to rebuild.

Younger families “tend to have larger social circles,” Zimmer said, but “our seniors tend to have closing social circles, so they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

After reaching safety, the first problem for many older evacuees was being without medical supplies and medications they depend on. The valve on Cayer’s trach tube must be cleaned and replaced multiple times daily, for example, but he had to leave most of his essentials behind in Paradise; now he worries about his access to oxygen and about getting sick.

Doctors, nurses and volunteers at the emergency shelters worked to locate and contact the evacuees’ primary care physicians — many of whom had to flee the fire themselves — and get hold of pharmacy records or other information that would help them replace the missing medications quickly. “I had to beg like a dog to get my medication,” said Dorothy Melton, 69, who is staying at the church shelter. She said she was taking prescription drugs for anxiety and high blood pressure, “but I don’t know what it is.”

Joy Reich, a Paradise resident at the Neighborhood Church shelter nearby, needed immediate attention for respiratory problems when she arrived. “I have asthma,” she said, “and that smoke and asthma did not mix well. It’s been awful.”

For Reich, who said she was “82 going on 150,” rebuilding in Paradise is not an option. She is moving to Seattle to be closer to her son, she said. But nothing can bring back the family birth and death certificates she had, dating back three generations, or the book she had spent 25 years writing, inspired by her mother and children. She had made a point of keeping the pile of loose-leaf manuscript pages — almost ripe for publication, she said proudly — by the front door, in case of an evacuation. “But I just freaked that day,” Reich said, and forgot it on her way out.

Without a relative to turn to, Cayer said he plans to stay at the shelter in Chico as long as he can, and then return to the trailer park in Paradise to see what might be left of his life. But it is not yet clear when that will be.

Cayer would like to purchase a new trailer and set it up again in the same lot, he said, but he had no insurance on the old one, which cost him $32,000. And moving back into a world of ash and rubble would entail substantial health risks, especially for someone with breathing issues.

All he has left, he said, is his turquoise 1929 Ford Roadster hot rod, which he managed to tow through the flames as he escaped.

“I have nowhere to go, I have no family,” Cayer said outside the church shelter, where he has spent his days in the parking lot polishing the car and tuning its 400-horsepower engine.

“That’s why I had to save this,” he said. “It’s my baby.”