Millions of Older Californians Live Where Wildfire Threatens. Mostly, They're on Their Own
KPBS Midday Edition Segments / August 17, 2020
California is ill-prepared to protect the nearly 2 million older Californians living in areas where wildfire is a formidable threat.
Speaker 1: 00:00 Longterm care homes for the elderly have been woefully unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic. Now wildfire season is here and an investigation by our colleagues at KQBD found these facilities are not prepared for this either. We'll spend some time exploring emergency preparedness and the elderly in a series called older and overlooked KQBD reporters, April Demboski and Molly Peterson launched our week long series. And we start with April looking back at the October, 2017 wildfire in center. When the police arrived at the Verena assisted living facility, the night of the wine country fires, they saw no caregivers, no managers
Speaker 1: 00:44 In one residential room. After another, they found elderly people, fast asleep police, body cam footage shows officers helping white hair. Ladies in night counts out of the building hours after employees left the grounds and your loved ones or the same thing was happening next door at the Villa Capri assisted living facility. This is all fly by the seat of your pants. Mark Allen came to get his 89 year old mother out. When he and his wife, Cathy arrived almost all of the 62 residents were still in their rooms. They found the few overnight staff left in the building.
Speaker 2: 01:19 They asked him if they had an evacuation plan and they said, no,
Speaker 1: 01:22 The staff didn't know where to take the residents or how to get them out. Mark asked about the big bus outside.
Speaker 2: 01:29 We don't know where's the keys, the office. We don't know. Where's the key
Speaker 1: 01:32 Mark and Kathy began carrying people in wheelchairs and walkers down the stairs. Many of them had dementia. They just kept
Speaker 2: 01:39 Asking what's happening. Are you a first responder? And I'd say no. And then they'd ask again. In five minutes,
Speaker 1: 01:45 Police arrived around 4:00 AM and helped get the rest of the residents out of Villa Capri. An hour later, it burned to the ground. Mark and Kathy filed a complaint with the state department of social services. The department accused the facilities of violating multiple health and safety regulations and the state moved to revoke their licenses.
Speaker 2: 02:05 Oh good. I thought good justice gotta be served. People were going to pay the consequences. I'm going to get their dues.
Speaker 1: 02:11 But the company that owns both facilities, Oakmont, senior, living appealed. Now nearly three years later, Villa Capri is rebuilt and both facilities are open for business charging seniors up to $10,000 a month to live there. I was just so angry. This is Beth Sirota. Stephie. Her mother was also left behind at Villa Capri, Mark and Kathy got her out. I can't even really put into words how angry I was and how disappointed in the state agency, whose job it is to get up every morning and protect people like my mom, living in a facility like that. And they failed them at the time. State law required facilities to have evacuation plans, but they were rudimentary. One page forms and Pam, Dick FOSS, head of licensing at the state department of social services says these fires were unprecedented. They typically had plans for a fire within their facility, a fire in the kitchen, but not plans to actually evacuate everyone out of the area.
Speaker 1: 03:06 Two facilities abandoning around a hundred residents that was unprecedented too. But instead of shutting them down, the department put both facilities on probation for two years, Dick Fosse says, regulators don't want to leave residents at risk, but they don't want to leave anyone on the street either. If we felt that the residents were in danger, you know, we wouldn't have gone that way. California's population is aging. The demand for beds at assisted living facilities is expected to double over the next 20 years, while supply is expected to run out in about 10 Dick FOSS says, that's why her agency focuses on collaboration rather than punishment. We're being more consultive during our annual inspections. Now, Beth, you wrote a Stephie, says her mom, Alice is still suffering the longterm effects of what happened After the fire. Ellis was transferred to three different residential facilities before she had a stroke and ended up in a nursing home. You look happy, you need clashes. So she's paralyzed on her left side and she's depressed. And she's angry about what's happened to her life. The last couple of years, starting with that night, it felt terrible. Like you've really been abandoned. Several people died in the months, right after the fire, including Mark Allen's mom, do you feel like,
Speaker 3: 04:32 Yes, yes. I do feel like she died because of the fire. She wasn't killed by the fire, but because of the fire and the trauma that happened afterwards, it took all the wheels live from
Speaker 1: 04:45 These fires in Santa Rosa were not isolated. The same thing happened the next year in paradise.
Speaker 1: 04:58 My colleague, Molly Peterson points out the average age of those who died during the campfire was 72. And climate change has already made wildfires more devastating and disasters more common. There is absolutely a colliding of the events of both population aging and climate change. Those two events don't bode well for older adults. Catherine higher is a professor in the school of aging studies at the university of South Florida. COVID-19 makes the already difficult situation of climate change, an aging population where there have been outbreaks of the virus and at least 72% of the state's nursing homes hire says, people in facilities now will have an even harder time deciding how and when to evacuate and where to take shelter. And the problem with COVID-19 is that we're supposed to all be separate from each other. California regulates around 10,000 longterm care homes from small assisted livings to larger nursing homes. A KQBD investigation found that 35% of these facilities are located where wildfire is a significant hazard. There's no comprehensive map of those hazards. We mapped them using first state designated fire zones and adding scientific maps showing where Wildlands meets cities. Max Morris is the statewide fire specialist for the UC cooperative extension. He says California needs to adapt to the changing risk
Speaker 4: 06:27 To finally come to a coexistence with wildfire. That is a whole different way of thinking and living with a given hazard. It means that we have to be ready for them. And we have to look out for the most vulnerable people when they do
Speaker 1: 06:43 During this pandemic, longterm care homes have failed to care for some of their most vulnerable residents, the same issues that left facilities unprepared for the coronavirus. Leave these residents vulnerable to wildfire. I'm Molly Peterson and I'm April Demboski KQBD news.