Indirect victims

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

On the Skyway: Eighty-five crosses for 85 victims, but none for those whose deaths were indirectly related to the Camp Fire.

Elinor Williams was a patient at Adventist Health Feather River Hospital when the Camp Fire hit Nov. 8. “She sadly lost her life while they were attempting to evacuate,” a GoFundMe page for her family reads.

Eighty-five-year-old Oran Crumley had been successfully rescued from his home in Paradise before it burned to the ground, according to Crumley’s obituary. He died at Oroville Hospital of cardiac arrest on Nov. 14.

Dan Jurgens had survived the fire but was hospitalized for smoke inhalation, according to GoFundMe. “He loved history. He was an avid craftsman and coin collector,” it reads. On Nov. 18, however, “the family sadly had to pull the plug.”

And for Ida Flores, of Magalia, “[t]he stress of losing her home was too much,” her granddaughter writes on a GoFundMe page. She died on Nov. 28.

Two days later, Sydney Zimmerman went to check on her father, Sandy Zimmerman, who she says was staying in a hotel room in Sacramento provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The whole family had been displaced from their Paradise homes by the Camp Fire. He hadn’t been in contact and they were worried. When they arrived, he was dead.

“[H]e was also a victim of this tragedy,” Sydney wrote on a GoFundMe page.

Alice Cummings was staying at the Red Cross shelter at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds on Jan. 5 when she fell ill and was rushed to the hospital. The 61-year-old evacuee from Magalia had developed pneumonia. She died at the hospital, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

The stories go on and on. And yet, for these Ridge residents who were forced to leave their homes—some of them in a panic, some of them needing assistance to reach safety—there are no crosses at a memorial display on the Skyway in remembrance of their lives. Despite the fact that some health professionals might categorize them as victims of the Camp Fire disaster, nobody is officially labeling them as such.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, tracking deaths both directly and indirectly related to a disaster is important in developing strategies to avoid such deaths in the future.

“During a disaster, it is important to conduct surveillance to determine the extent and scope of the health effects on the affected populations. Surveillance is the systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of deaths, injuries, and illnesses which enables public health to track and identify any adverse health effects in the community,” the CDC’s website reads.

Furthermore, the agency has put together a toolkit for gathering this surveillance.

“By documenting and raising awareness of risks associated with certain types of disasters, we can potentially prevent unnecessary deaths through refinement of strategies to prepare for, respond to, and recover from future disasters,” the toolkit reads.

But no agency in Butte County, the state or the nation appears to be tracking deaths indirectly related to the Camp Fire. In response to a CN&R query, an unnamed FEMA spokesperson responded with a statement: “FEMA does not determine deaths after a disaster. Determining whether someone’s death was directly or indirectly related to a disaster is always difficult to do, and the decision ultimately rests with the professional judgment of the attending physician, medical examiner, or coroner. State, Tribal, or Territorial governments may provide guidance to hospitals, health care providers, and medical examiners on reporting disaster-related deaths.”

The California Office of Emergency Management referred this reporter to the Butte County Department of Public Health or the Coroner’s Office as the first places to look for local data. Neither is tracking that information, the CN&R was told. Butte County spokeswoman Casey Hatcher, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Miranda Bowersox and Public Health spokeswoman Lisa Almageur referred the CN&R to local hospitals.

When asked about indirect death and injury data related to the Camp Fire, Nicole Johansson at Enloe Medical Center said via email that “that isn’t something we are tracking. You may contact the Sheriff/Corner’s Office.” Phone and email messages to Oroville Hospital spokesman Jonathan Miceli went unanswered.

UC Davis Medical Center spokeswoman Karen Finney said her organization is tracking injury data and said that 12 patients were admitted to UC Davis with burns: “They arrived with conditions ranging from fair to critical, and one died,” she said. “One patient is currently in the hospital in serious condition.”

That one patient, Larry Smith, is listed among the 85 official Camp Fire deaths.

“As far as indirect deaths—things like people who may have been in a frail condition to begin with and this was the last straw, or they lost everything and gave up the will to live—I don’t have a good way of accounting for those. In some cases, they might not even be reported to us,” said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea.

The sheriff did confirm that Williams, who died during the evacuation from Feather River Hospital, was not counted among the 85 Camp Fire victims. A man who committed suicide as the fire approached, however, was, despite the fact that the fire likely precipitated both deaths.

When asked about the CDC’s recommendation and toolkit, Honea said, “That’s something that’s on our radar. But given the gravity and scope of this [disaster], we’re still in the process of finishing up the cases of those people who were direct victims—there are 11 individuals we are still working on identification for.”