Countless lives lost in the shuffle

Eighty-five people died as a direct result of the Camp Fire. But that’s not the end of the story—far from it.

The wildfire also is indirectly responsible for the deaths of many others, including frail elderly folks and people who already were medically fragile. The effects of the fire—smoke and stress, for example—sent them into a downward health spiral that ultimately claimed their lives.

The CN&R learned about several such victims by scouring death notices and obituaries—in some cases finding references to heart attack and pneumonia—but we hardly know the scope of the situation. As we reported last week (see “Indirect victims,” by Meredith J. Cooper), a complete tally will be hard to come by. That’s because none of the agencies charged with public health and safety in Butte County appears to be tracking these types of fatalities. Neither are the agencies at the state and federal levels.

That bears repeating: No public agency—not the Federal Emergency Management Agency, not the California Office of Emergency Management, and not even our county government, including Sheriff/Coroner Kory Honea—is attempting to keep track of the overall death count related to the deadliest fire in California’s history. The result: an underreported disaster mortality rate.

This is a vital piece of the puzzle when it comes to learning from the catastrophe. Just a few items of interest: identifying at-risk groups and the lead causes of death. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “better data help public health officials and emergency response and recovery workers plan for future events, determine risk factors, monitor national trends, and save lives.”

To wit, such data support funding for strategies to prevent similar future scenarios, notes the CDC. This omission does not inspire confidence that our region will be better prepared for wildfires to come.

We could belabor the agencies’ short-sightedness. Instead, we’ll offer a few suggestions. Post-haste, Butte County ought to scour the CDC’s Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response toolkit. Among other things, it offers tips for tracking and certifying disaster-related deaths. As noted, the county will need to establish partnerships with out-of-area coroner’s offices and medical examiners, as well as hospital directors and other agencies to collect this info. We’d also suggest the county set up a portal to allow the families of victims to report such information.

This won’t be an easy undertaking, since thousands of Camp Fire survivors have scattered, but the collection of this data is critical to saving lives.