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Majority Of Northern California Wildfire Victims Were 65 Or Older


More than 40 people have died in the wildfires in northern California, and the number could go up. More than 50 people are still missing. Investigators have been looking for remains in the ashes. One thing stands out about those who died. The vast majority who have been identified were over the age of 65. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging and looks at some possible reasons for that.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Sunday evening before the fire overtook them, LeRoy and Donna Halbur, both 80, were having dinner at their home north of Santa Rosa along with their eldest son, Dave, his wife and their 2-year-old son. Dave Halbur remembers it as a typical Sunday dinner with his folks.

DAVE HALBUR: Had Chinese food and talked. And it was a really nice evening.

JAFFE: The fire came through a few hours later in the early morning darkness. By Monday, Dave Halbur had heard nothing from his parents.

HALBUR: So I spent much of the day going from shelter to shelter, looking for them. And then finally I got a message to come home.

JAFFE: His wife's stepfather had gone to LeRoy and Donna Halbur's house with some firefighters. They found the remains of two people - Donna Halbur in a car in the garage area, LeRoy Halbur outside. But that's not how Dave Halbur would want you to remember them.

HALBUR: They were great parents, they were generous, really loved by their community.

JAFFE: His dad had been an accountant and led the St. Vincent De Paul charitable society in Santa Rosa. His mother, formerly a nun, was a children's reading specialist. They were humble and stoic, which their son chalks up to their Iowa roots. Just this August, the family had celebrated the Halbur's 50th anniversary and 80th birthdays. But Donna Halbur had been in poor health in recent years. Her movement and memory were impaired. Dave Halbur says that even though his parents made it out of the house, he doesn't think they really had a chance.

HALBUR: The firefighters said that fire was moving at a pace of 1 acre per minute, so that's awfully fast.

MARIANNE MCBRIDE: When you really think about the different factors, it's not all that surprising that the victims overwhelmingly were seniors.

JAFFE: That's Marianne McBride, CEO of the Council on Aging in Sonoma County. Luck, or rather bad luck, played a role in the fatalities. The fire swept through a mobile home park that catered to residents 55 and older. But then there were Charles and Sara Rippey. He was 100. She was 98. They simply didn't have the mobility to escape their home before it crashed around them in flames. And Marianne McBride says that even if an older person could get out of their house, doesn't mean they could get away.

MCBRIDE: Twenty-five percent of us will lose our ability to drive in our lifetime. So if that were the case and you didn't have a car to get away, then there you go. You're stranded.

JAFFE: Many people who did escape report being awakened by the smell of smoke. McBride says some older people might not have noticed that.

MCBRIDE: We tend to lose our sense of smell as we get older. Anyone with early cognitive issues - sense of smell is one of the first things that goes.

JAFFE: Other evacuees have said they were awakened by the roar of the wind or the flames or pounding on the door. But nearly two-thirds of adults over age 70 have some degree of hearing loss. McBride says that even hearing aids might not have helped in this situation.

MCBRIDE: We get hearing aids. We take them off at night, or we turn them off at night. So it's quite likely that we wouldn't hear something.

JAFFE: And as the story of LeRoy and Donna Halbur shows, a serious physical challenge can make it all but impossible to outrun the flames. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.


Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."
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