California is aging faster than the rest of the country. In 10 years, the state projects the number of people over 65 will grow to 8.6 million.
“There is absolutely a colliding of the events of both population aging and climate change,” said University of South Florida gerontologist Kathryn Hyer.
During the Camp Fire, the average age of those who died in Butte County was 72. Because of this and other disasters, the state says taking care of vulnerable people is a priority.
Most of the town of Paradise is in a state-designated High-Risk Fire Zone. These zones are meant to focus resources on protecting people in harm's way.
“We need to know what parts of this state are most at risk for wildfires,“ Gov. Gavin Newsom said last year. “Seniors don’t have the mobility many others have.“
We mapped the state's moderate, high and very high risk fire zones.
Cal Fire used vegetation, fire history and topography to create these maps. They're being updated to better account for risk.
So, we added scientific maps that show where sprawl and building increase risk: in the wildland-urban interface where development is near open lands, and the intermix where houses and wildlands commingle. Rural areas also burn: some are mainly vegetation, and others are sparsely inhabited.
Combined, these zones show how fire is a daunting hazard across much of California.
In 2017, the North Bay fires ate up swaths of Santa Rosa, where grass and oak woodlands meet urban sprawl. Managers at two assisted living centers abandoned about 100 people, who were rescued by first responders and family members. Those facilities are on probation, but remain open.
There are more than 10,000 long-term care facilities in California, from six-bed assisted living homes to large nursing centers.
Our analysis found that 35% of these facilities are in risky areas. With as many as 105,000 residents to safeguard if fire comes, these care home operators must now consider how to evacuate during a pandemic, a more complicated and difficult task.
Since new federal emergency preparedness rules took effect in 2017, regulators have caught most of the nursing homes in the state violating them, according to public records.
One of those facilities is Riverside Heights Healthcare Center. In 2019, a fast-moving brush fire in nearby Jurupa Valley forced a sudden evacuation, with patients gathered out along the Pomona Freeway.
“There was one moment when I could see nothing but dark smoke and I was like, ‘We’re going to die,’“ one staffer told the AP.
Most Californians 65 and older don't live in care homes though, and are especially vulnerable to fires physically, mentally, economically and socially.
In 23 counties, older Californians overwhelmingly choose to live in fire-prone areas. Including in San Luis Obispo County, where 82% do.
That means nearly 2 million older Californians live in the red areas where wildfire is a formidable threat. Read the series.
Scroll down to search for an address and see whether it falls in the state-identified fire hazard zones or the scientist-mapped wildland urban interface.