How are the elderly affected by California wildfires?

Ronald Tyra knew it was time to flee when the 100-acre fire across the street began igniting point fires as it hurtled down the mountain. Tyra sped from his home in Klamath River, California with little more than his clothes on his back.

His neighbors – Charles Kays, 79, and his wife Judith, 82 – weren’t so lucky. Only recently identified by authorities, their bodies were found in a burned-out vehicle at the end of their driveway. They apparently rammed a locked gate in an attempt to escape and went off the road, officials said.

The rapidly spreading fire would also claim the lives of two other Klamath River residents: Kathy Shoopman, 73, a veteran Forest Service firefighter, and John Cogan, 76. Some say they were initially reluctant to leave their longtime homes, although officials urged them to evacuate.

Today, nearly a month after the McKinney Fire ignited in Siskiyou County and grew into the state’s largest wildfire of the year, experts say the deaths in this small unincorporated community highlight the growing vulnerability of rural seniors during times of extreme blaze.

“Whether you look at wildfire frequency or the areas burned by wildfires, the proportion of older people increases fairly linearly as you get into higher-risk census tracts,” said Shahir Masri, an environmental health scientist at UC Irvine.

Not only are older people more likely to suffer from chronic illnesses or disabilities that limit mobility — making it harder to escape a raging fire — Masri said they’re also more likely to live in rural areas where job opportunities are scarce but the cost of living is high generally lower. These are also the areas that are bearing the brunt of increasing wildfire risk in the west, according to an article by Masri published last year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The tragedy commemorates the toll of California’s deadliest fire of 2018. The majority of the 85 people who died in the bonfire were over the age of 65, prompting calls for emergency preparedness strategies to help seniors living in high fire risk areas to address better.

A fire engine drives down California Highway 96 while the McKinney Fire burns.

A fire truck drives down California Highway 96 as the McKinney Fire burns in the Klamath National Forest.

(Noah Berger/Associated Press)

According to US Census data, nearly 27% of Siskiyou County residents are age 65 or older, compared to about 15% of residents statewide. Much of the county, including virtually the entire corridor of Highway 96 where the fire destroyed homes, is considered a very high fire risk zone.

The county recognized this and sent deputies or firefighters to each of the roughly 800 homes that were ordered to evacuate, said Bryan Schenone, director of the county’s office of emergency management. They also reviewed a statewide registry of vulnerable people who need more help exiting, and dispatched buses and ambulances to an RV park and assisted living center in Yreka, he said.

Still, he said, authorities cannot force people to leave if they choose to stay behind.

Some Siskiyou County residents have lived in the area for 60 or 70 years and have seen many fires, Schenone said. These past experiences might lead them to believe that they can survive the crisis.

But today’s fires are fundamentally different from those that burned decades ago, officials say.

“We’re definitely seeing conditions changing in recent years in a way that fires are burning more intensely and growing larger at a faster rate,” said Heather McRae, assistant fire safety officer for Klamath National Forest. “As far as fire behavior goes, it’s not what it used to be.”

The McKinney fire broke out on the afternoon of July 29 in a meadow near a PacifiCorp power distribution line. A cause has not been officially determined, although a lawsuit filed on behalf of residents alleges that electrical appliances are to blame.

Fueled by record heat and dense, dry vegetation, the fire reached an area of ​​heavy wood that had not burned in 100 years. It was then blown in all directions by thunderstorm winds, McRae said. Structures in the Klamath River area were destroyed within hours, authorities said.

Cogan was at his home on Highway 96 with his niece, Sherri Marchetti-Perrault, when the fire intensified. The property was included in the first round of evacuation orders, issued just over an hour after the fire was first reported. Marchetti-Perrault said he decided to stay behind despite the encroaching flames.

Sheri Marchetti-Perrault and James Benton hug while viewing the remains of their home.

Sheri Marchetti-Perrault and James Benton hug as they search the ruins of their home which was destroyed by the McKinney fire.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“When we left, everything was on fire,” she said. “It was so quick.”

Marchetti-Perrault later returned to the property and saw her uncle’s remains, she said.

Shoopman was contacted about the evacuation that first night.

“She had a house there that she had lived in for 50 years, and when she was asked to evacuate on the first Friday night, she just said she would be more comfortable staying,” said Rachel Smith, head of Klamath National Forest. Other officers said Shoopman may have tried to leave when the fire reached them.

Shoopman, who has been at her current post at Buckhorn Lookout since 1993, was legendary for pinpointing the exact location of a fire so firefighters didn’t have to search for smoke, a skill that earned her the Klamath’s Lookout of the Year title in 2015, said Jennifer Erickson, a public affairs officer for the Forest Service. Her unique voice was loved by many who grew accustomed to hearing her check-ins and smoke size reviews over the radio.

“She really was a part of that forest,” Erickson said.

Klamath National Forest was on heightened alert when the fire broke out because forecasts called for lightning, McRae said. Helicopters and air tankers reacted quickly, setting up deceleration lines that appeared to be holding.

But then thunderstorms developed. The windswept fire created a massive pyrocumulonimbus cloud that rose at least 39,000 feet into the sky and created its own thunder and lightning storms, according to the National Weather Service.

The situation turned dire, forcing crews to switch from containing the fire to evacuating and defending buildings.

“Anytime there’s a thunderstorm around an existing fire, it’s very dangerous because you get these updrafts and downdrafts from the thunderstorm itself and you can create very, very intermittent high-speed winds,” said Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at the University of California UC Berkeley. “And I think that’s one of the reasons why, unfortunately, four people got caught.”

And there were other factors, he said, including the combination of extreme drought and overgrown vegetation that can make the embers easy to ignite and spread. A history of logging and firefighting policies has also resulted in stands with unnaturally young, dense wood that is more susceptible to fast-moving crown fires, experts say.

“The legacy of both indigenous burning elimination and firefighting has really prepared these forests for catastrophic change,” Stephens said.

In the past, fires would stretch back somewhat at night when temperatures cooled and humidity increased, giving firefighters a chance to catch up, McRae said. But the McKinney Fire continued to actively burn as night fell, with darkness and storm activity also grounding planes.

“I think it took our firefighters by surprise, as well as the public, in terms of the rapid spread,” McRae said.

A deer and fawns search for food in a burned forest.

A hind and her fawns forage for food in the McKinney Fire Zone near Yreka, California.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Some residents were also adjusting to changes in the county’s evacuation system. For years, Siskiyou County has used a high-speed notification network called CodeRED, which allows people to sign up to receive emergency notifications on their cell phones or landlines.

Last year, the county also began using a platform called Zone Haven to help with evacuations. Each house is in a zone identified by three or four letters and four numbers. Residents are encouraged to find out which zone they live in by entering their address online and to leave when their zone is evacuated.

Some local residents said the zoning system was confusing.

“Unfortunately, it makes sense that the people who are hardest hit by the fires are the people who are older because they are not as technically savvy and then also take longer to evacuate,” said Mary Bozzacco, project manager for a local wildfire-fighting project run by the nonprofit community Organized Relief Effort.

Schenone acknowledged there has been some confusion and said he plans to do an outreach to educate residents about Zone Haven. The county also sent evacuation alerts through CodeRED; the FEMA Integrated Public Alert Warning System, which broadcasts alerts to all landlines, radios and televisions in affected areas; and Rave, an alert and warning system similar to CodeRED that was recently purchased by the state of California, he said.

Tyra, 68, a registered nurse, has both a landline and cell phone but said he didn’t know he had to sign up for specific services. He decided to leave his home several hours before the evacuation orders were issued.

“I’m just grateful it wasn’t the middle of the night,” he said. “Because I don’t even know what kind of warning we would have gotten.”

Drawn by the prospect of a mountainside retirement home with breathtaking views, Tyra moved to the area four years ago. The fire destroyed his house and everything in it, and now he faces the prospect of having to start over. Though devastated, he’s not surprised.

“That’s the story of life in California, right?” he said. “Especially if you live remotely.”

Haley Smith, a Times contributor, contributed to this report. How are the elderly affected by California wildfires?

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