After barely getting out of Paradise alive before the Camp Fire turned most of her town to ash, Patty Saunders, 89, spends her days and nights in a reclining chair inside the shelter at East Avenue Church, 16 miles away.
It hurts too much to move. She needs a hip replacement and her legs are swollen. Next to her is a portable commode, and when it’s time to go, nurses and volunteers help her up and hold curtains around her to give her some measure of privacy.
“Never in my life did I think I would end up in a situation like this, but when it’s time to go, you got to go,” Saunders said. Under the circumstances, she is in good spirits, with a rotating cast of people stopping by to chat and take care of her.
Most of the fire victims here are older folks like her. They rest on cots, inflatable beds and recliners in a pop-up community of nearly 200 evacuees and an army of volunteers.
The Camp Fire, the deadliest in state history, took ruthless aim at older people. Paradise was largely a retirement community, with a quarter of the population 65 and older. The sheriff’s list of the missing includes many in their 70s and 80s.
Like everyone else in the wildfire’s path, older people fled swiftly, if they escaped at all, often leaving behind medications, wheelchairs, walkers and essential medical equipment.
Elderly refugees often need more support, especially with chronic conditions and infections that incubate and spread in close quarters. Some need dialysis but can’t get it. Others have respiratory illnesses aggravated by smoke. One woman in a Yuba City shelter was recovering from cancer surgery with a stapled wound.
“It’s been rough,” said Joy Beeson, 76, an evacuee who landed in the Chico church shelter. “Lost a couple of bedmates the other night. They all went to the hospital.”
They were felled by norovirus, a nasty stomach illness that causes diarrhea and vomiting. People were throwing up all day. Then, in the middle of night, paramedics came and removed the sickest, according to some evacuees.
The week after the Nov. 8 fire, nearly all the shelters from Chico to Yuba City were hit by an outbreak of the stomach illness—sending dozens to hospitals. The Butte County Public Health Department said 145 people in the shelters had been sick with the virus. Fearful volunteers and evacuees rarely shake hands anymore; fist bumps and elbow knocks are highly encouraged.
“Just threw up a few times,” said Martha Pichotta, 65, who was staying at the Red Cross shelter in Yuba City, about 50 miles south of her former hometown. After 24 hours of isolation behind blue curtains, she was released to mingle with other evacuees.
Adding to the physical and emotional stress, especially for seniors, was the hurried escape from longtime homes and the disruption of often predictable lives. There was little time for practical consideration, let alone sentiment—beloved pets and rooms full of memories were lost.
Beeson, whose shelter mates were taken to the hospital, said her adult son put his hand on her back to steady her, yelling, “Run, mama, run!” The only reason they escaped the fire alive was because a car picked them up and whisked them to freedom.
David Jackman, 72, said he shuffled down the road as fast as he could, leaving behind his dog and his walker as the flames overcame his house and propane tanks exploded behind him. A firetruck came to his rescue—likely saving his life.
Saunders, the 89-year-old Paradise resident, nearly burned to death in a car. One side of it melted.
Most of the older folks in the shelter said they couldn’t be more grateful for all the support and care they’ve received. Even so, life in a shelter is hard.
Denise Parker, a Red Cross volunteer in Yuba City, said they can offer displaced people Pepto-Bismol and lots of Gatorade. But some were so dehydrated they needed to be hospitalized. Parker said they double-bag all waste and isolate those who are sick.
Parker recently got a request for an oversize wheelchair but wasn’t sure how to find one, she said. One evacuee needed dialysis, but they didn’t have the resources to drive the hundred or so miles back and forth to get him to a clinic.
A nurse and doctors stop by to write prescriptions, Parker said, but for more complicated conditions the shelter struggles to meet the need. It isn’t a full-fledged medical facility.
David Ramey, a 64-year-old with a scraggly beard, lounged on an inflatable bed at the Chico shelter, puffing on a nebulizer to soothe his emphysema. It was acting up because of the smoke hanging in the air. He bought the device soon after getting out of the danger zone.
Many of those who lost nearly everything are in a limbo state, not knowing what they will do next. Paradise was attractive not just because of its natural beauty but because housing was reasonably priced for retirees.
At the Yuba City shelter, Pichotta sat in a wheelchair puffing on a cigarette with a blanket over her legs. She was talking with her 33-year-old son about what they should do now. They didn’t have residential insurance and their only monthly income is a $900 Supplemental Security Income check. While she doesn’t know where she will end up, her life in Paradise is over.
“I never want to go to Paradise again,” she said, and cried.