Wildfires and the Elderly: Protecting the Most Vulnerable

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Wildfires and the Elderly: Protecting the Most Vulnerable

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Elderly Are 4 Times More Likely to Die in a Fire

Sara and Charles Rippey met as grade-schoolers in Hartford, Wis., and lived together for much of their century-long lives.

She was 98; he was 100. They had recently celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary.

And they were Napa County’s first confirmed fatalities in the wildfires that ravaged Northern California last October. The inferno simply moved too quickly for the couple to escape.

“The only thing worse would have been if one survived without the other,” their granddaughter said.

U.S. Air Force Photo, Public Domain

No Escape

In the grim aftermath of last fall’s wine country wildfires, one compelling fact quickly emerged: the majority of the 41 victims were elderly.

Most were found inside their homes, unable to escape as the fire bore down. At least one was confined to a wheelchair.

The diablo winds propelled the fires faster than even able-bodied people could run. The blazes spread so quickly that advance warning was measured in minutes or seconds. Hesitation proved lethal. For elderly victims with limited mobility, chances of survival were slim.

Many of the elderly victims resided in a Santa Rosa mobile home park for seniors, ironically named Journey’s End. The fire that consumed the area was so hot that the residents were essentially cremated.

The Most Vulnerable

According to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), people ages 85 or older have the highest fire death rate (39.5). They are 4.1 times more likely to die in a fire than the total population.

For all of us, the risk of dying in a fire increases significantly as we age. Knowing what to do in a fire emergency can make a big difference. If there is a fire in your home, you have less than three minutes to get out, so being prepared ahead of time is critical.

Have a Plan

The USFA recommends the following:

  • FEMA Photo, Public Domain

    If you need to use a wheelchair or a cane, make sure you can get to it easily and get out quickly.

  • Keep eyeglasses, hearing aids, keys and a phone within reach next to your bed.
  • Know two ways out of every room. Practice using both ways.
  • Remove any items that may block your way out of the room or your home.
  • Discuss your fire escape plan with family and neighbors. Contact your building manager or fire department to discuss your plan if you need extra help escaping.
  • Practice your home fire escape drill twice a year.
  • The fire department can help you with your escape plan. Ask emergency providers to keep your special needs information on file.
  • If you’re an elderly homeowner, consider installing interior and exterior sprinkler systems.
  • If you or someone in your home suffers from hearing loss, install smoke alarms with flashing lights or vibrating signals.

FEMA Photo, Public Domain

Where There’s Smoke

And speaking of smoke alarms, did you know that the majority of fatal fires occur when people are sleeping?

If fact, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), smoke can actually cause you to sleep more deeply rather than waking you.

So it’s important to make sure you have smoke alarms installed on every floor of your home, even the basement.

The alarms should be located within or just outside every sleeping area. They should be tested monthly and replaced every ten years.


Featured Image: Pixabay

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