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Millions of Older Californians Live Where Wildfire Threatens. Mostly, They're on Their Own

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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 All week, we've been talking about the threat of wildfire to care homes, but the fact is most older people aren't in care homes. And we know when a wildfire hits, they suffer the most in the North Bay fires and the campfire three quarters of the people who died were over the age of 65 in the conclusion of a KQBD investigation called older and overlooked reporters, Molly Peterson, and April Demboski explore how to protect elderly people who live independently. We begin with April in fire prone, Nevada County,

Speaker 2: 00:35 From the Hills of the Sierra Nevada. A new hero will emerge.

Speaker 1: 00:40 I drive in theaters this fall moviegoers in grass Valley. We'll see a trailer like this one. It shows people packing, go bags, cleaning gutters, kids, showing their grandparents how to get emergency alerts. Online.

Speaker 2: 00:54 This fire season, you were the hero.

Speaker 1: 00:58 The message is clear. Get ready because if a fire comes you're on your own many residents here have taken it to heart. During fire season, Katrina harden falls asleep to her police scanner every night, listening for early signs of wildfire. I use it like a radio until recently harden lived with her mom, Rosemarie reader. Who's 77 Nevada County has one of the highest rates of residents over 65 in the state. It's a lot of retirement up here. Various people have walkers. Some are in wheelchairs. The mother and daughter helped create a buddy system. Pairing every elderly neighbor with a younger one, someone to check on them in an emergency and help them get out. People freeze up. They have a hard time thinking. They can't make decisions. They're too concerned about not knowing where their meds are. They get locked up. The buddy pairings are mainly informal agreements decided while out walking the dog reader believes they will save lives.

Speaker 1: 01:58 It's vitally needed. And especially in these days with this much climate changes we have had, we really don't know what's coming next and we need to prepare for it. She wishes the buddy pairings were part of a systemic response for all neighborhoods. My colleague, Molly Peterson explains why that's unlikely during a disaster. No public agency has legal responsibility for checking up on elderly people, not the County, not the state. Debbie [inaudible] is an advocate for seniors living independently. She says, ageism causes more deaths in disasters. I'm saying people's reactions to it. Like these are just disposable people. They're elderly. They're at the end of their life. Anyway, like there's no value there. Disabled people, poor people, old people. These are the vulnerable communities that California emergency officials want to find. And Warren, they are vulnerable physically, emotionally and financially, but so are the systems meant to protect them?

Speaker 2: 02:57 One step forward, 12 steps. Jerry candidate

Speaker 1: 03:00 Is 68 going on 31. He likes to say with an ambitious Gran and three years ago, fire came for his house in Santa Rosa,

Speaker 3: 03:08 Up from the noise. And so I go out the front and big chunks of debris were falling off. You know,

Speaker 1: 03:16 Wait, rescuers knocked on his door. He slept through it

Speaker 3: 03:19 Has gone. And there was nobody there. There was no fire department and there was no neighbors. Then everybody had been neglected.

Speaker 1: 03:25 His house burned to the ground, no insurance. So I slept in my car. He moved to a shelter in a cot there one night, he almost stopped breathing,

Speaker 3: 03:34 Smoke, inhalation, pneumonia, and congestive heart.

Speaker 1: 03:38 After all of that candidate can't sleep well. Now he is depressed and anxious. He rents a room in someone else's house in Oakmont, and he can't drive anymore. For medical reasons.

Speaker 3: 03:47 I feel isolated. I don't feel connected so much as I'd like to

Speaker 1: 03:53 By nature. Candidate is hopeful. He has a cat rescued from paradise. He says, they're survivors, the Kincaid fire forced them to evacuate again, last fall.

Speaker 3: 04:02 I think you're safe and nothing is going to happen, but here it comes again. And so I had to relive the experience again, for those who might have trouble evacuating that have mobility issues, it's even more important that their communities be designed to reduce their risk.

Speaker 1: 04:20 Max Moritz is a wildfire specialist for the UC cooperative extension. He says, we know how to build and cluster homes more safely near Wildlands, but we don't

Speaker 3: 04:30 Stronger and more deliberate, urban planning guidance to address where and how we build our communities, especially in the face of climate change.

Speaker 1: 04:38 More. It says we have to learn to live with wildfire Californians. Don't like being told where to do it. Even after disaster strikes, as long as that's true, we have to work harder to protect the people who are overlooked. I'm Molly Peterson. KQBD news. You can read more about the older and overlooked series on the KQ ed website.

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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.