What we can learn after Caldor Fire (Opinion)

Carol S. Heape
Guest column

I passed fire trucks again this morning as I drove down Pleasant Valley Rd. (I began writing this several weeks ago.) The helicopters are still using the Placerville airport as a helipad as we see them lifting off and “heading back to the barn” in the evening. For most of us we’re unpacked and back home if it’s still standing. We’re now in October with little meaningful rain as yet and we continue to hold our breath about fire.

Carol Heape

Thank goodness for Code Red through the EDC Sheriff’s Office although the calls were upsetting when they came because it made it all too real. The kindness of people, of neighbors, friends from afar and total strangers brought me to tears through it all. However, we have gaps and because we have to be prepared for whatever comes next, we need to know what’s out there, what resources are available and how to find those resources when we need them.

It would be wonderful if we had rain early this year but in actuality, it’s very likely we will have more weeks of dry weather. Fire officials remind us almost daily that we’re only half way through fire season so we cannot relax. So … now is the time to think about what’s out there, what resources are available and how to alert authorities when someone is in danger or at risk.

The generosity of churches, food closets, developers, community service districts, schools and individuals along with fire fighters and law enforcement personnel from all over to serve and protect all of us was terrific. The communities came together and now in the aftermath are helping coordinate resources for the Grizzly Flats community.

While this devastating event is still in front of us, it’s important to think about and talk about what worked and what didn’t. In talking to other organizations working with older adults in the community, there seemed to be a disconnect when it came to alerting and evacuating older and in many cases individuals with disabilities. We all did the best we could but it wasn’t enough.

El Dorado County has one of the largest older adult populations in California. Some families have lived here for many, many years while others moved to the foothills to retire. It is quite common for individuals 80 years and older to have difficulty remembering. Many still live alone or with their spouse who may have significant health issues as well. Living in their home of many years and having a routine that works for them keeps them safe under normal circumstances. However, when a disaster approaches i.e., the Caldor fire and the order to evacuate is given, this individual or older couple can be completely unsure how to proceed. From a personal perspective I can tell you it felt paralyzing.

We were in the evacuation zone and had to pack up and leave our house of 40 years. The feelings of helplessness and fear were terrible and we had a place to go and stay. I cannot even imagine how it would be had we not had family to help or not have a familiar place to go to. Fortunately we did and we were able to move back home in less than a week.

Questions remain: What would be helpful going forward for those people who live alone, have advanced age or disability, have no family or none close by and nowhere to go? What issues must be addressed to be better prepared if there’s a next time?

1.What approach should be taken with individuals who are in an unsafe situation i.e., evacuation zone to assure their physical safety?

2.What type of special services should be in place to address health issues including memory deficits, dementia or Alzheimer’s diagnosis?

3.If there are older adults living in a congregate setting such as a Board & Care home what plan is in place to evacuate the facility? Where would they be placed?

4.If the older adults live in a senior mobile home park and do not drive, what plans are in place to help these individuals evacuate safely?

5.What kind of training would be helpful for first responders to understand the needs and fears of these older adults who function sufficiently at home but are “lost at sea” in a strange, unfamiliar setting?

6.Who are the forgotten residents that live in a very rural area, down a dirt road, who only drive to the closest local market and never on the freeway? In an emergency who will remember them?

7.What types of community planning is in place or should be including all organizations that provide services to older, vulnerable individuals who need help. Note: There are multiple businesses, service organizations, religious organizations, non-profits as well as public service organizations that interface with older residents.

8.If an older adult lost their home in the fire with no family or none close by, who is available to help them re-plan their life?

Other issues I’m sure will emerge or have already. I’m hoping that our Board of Supervisors, El Dorado County OES or other public entities will convene a series of meetings and invite all the stakeholders so all the issues can be addressed with solutions ready for the next emergency, hoping of course, that we’re safe for a while.

Carol S. Heape, MSW, CMC, is founder of Elder Options, Inc. serving El Dorado County and the Sacramento Region since 1988.

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