Our senior population is on the rise and many are living in wildfire prone areas. Photo courtesy of Unsplash, Christian Bowen.

Helping Our Senior Community Prepare

By: Emily Troisi, Hannah Hepner, Abby Silver, Cynthia Latham

Topic: Equity/Inclusion Planning Preparedness

Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned Tools / Resources

This fall, I was working in my local Emergency Operations Center to support response to fires we had in my county in Colorado. My ears perked up when I heard things like, “We know this polygon (my county has pre-determined evacuation polygons in the WUI) has a high population of seniors that may need help evacuating, so we already have the [redacted company name] vans on standby and staged in case we need to issue an evacuation order.”

I often think about the most vulnerable in our communities across the country and how we are (or are not) prioritizing and addressing their needs. Recently I have been thinking more about how practitioners are focusing on older adults in their wildfire preparedness work, and how they have had to adapt their programs due to COVID-19.

There are a lot of considerations when thinking about how to help seniors prepare including: helping senior care centers create continuity of operations in a disaster plan, thinking about smoke impacts, developing situational awareness about who may need help evacuating in a disaster, and more.

Why is this important? For one example; California’s over-65 population is expecting to double over the next two decades, putting a higher number of people at risk to wildfire and in need of senior-care facilities. An analysis by KQED, CPR and CalMatters found that 35% of California’s 10,000 long-term care facilities were in a “risky” (it appears they are including moderate to severe wildfire risk in this definition) location. Additionally, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, older adults are at increased risk of health effects from short-term exposure to wildfire smoke.

So with an increasing number of older adults – combined with challenges of evacuation and the knowledge that climate change will continue to contribute to increased heat, drought and extreme fire behavior – it’s clear we need to prioritize and support programs that reach seniors in our communities.

I have collected a few stories and examples of programs from around the country to showcase various efforts to engage seniors in wildfire adaptation efforts. These programs focus on defensible space, home hardening, and education. The efforts necessary to address the full spectrum of senior community needs are vast and this is not a comprehensive look at all of them. This small slice of story sharing is meant to inspire and encourage those who are looking to start.

A woman with a cane walks next to a man in motorized wheelchair on a sidewalk

Accessibility for evacuation is of utmost importance when planning for wildfires. Photo courtesy of Unsplash, Max Bender

California

Hannah Hepner, Plumas County Fire Safe Council

The Plumas County Fire Safe Council started the Senior/Disabled Defensible Space Assistance Program in 2003. The goal of the program is to assist Plumas County residents who might not have the physical or financial resources to create defensible space. In 2019 the program aided 112 clients.

Twenty-eight percent of Plumas County residents are over the age of 65. Recent fires in Plumas County have highlighted how at risk this senior population is in evacuation and emergency situations. The program not only makes these individuals’ homes more defensible, it brings them into compliance with California state law, and has – in some cases – allowed homeowners to retain their insurance.

The program provides assistance for seniors (over 65) or persons with a medical physical disability. Accepted participants receive a free educational “Home Ignition Zone” consultation for determining work necessary to meet California’s Defensible Space Law under Public Resources Code (PRC) 4291. The program also helps to procure bids from qualified and insured contractors to provide up to $1,500 in service by working from the home and driveway outward, with a goal of meeting California code requirements. The program also ensures and certifies the work completion.

Staffing, Funding and Logistics: The program has been operating for 17 years and is run by grant funding. Funds have come from the Plumas Resource Advisory Committee, the California Fire Safe Council, the Plumas County Board of Supervisors Title III funds, CAL FIRE and PG&E. The program is managed by one part-time seasonal employee. However, participation in the program has been steadily increasing and the time investment from the program manager has been increasing as well, so my role is to ensure that the program has ongoing funding.

COVID-19 Impacts: Normally, each year the program manager meets with every participant at their home prior to the program implementation. This year, due to COVID-19, we had to forgo most of these meetings. In cases where he did have to meet with participants in person, the meetings were held outside and everyone wore masks.

This year’s fires significantly impacted the program as one of the defensible space contractors was pulled off the project at a critical time and sent out of the area for fire suppression. Having strong local workforce capacity for mitigation work is a critical element in this program accomplishing its full slate of projects.

Advice to other practitioners:  Try to establish multiple years of funding for this type of program so that you’re not seeking funding year-to-year. I also recommend that you ensure that contractors are familiar with the requirements of local codes before bidding. Use a contract mechanism that ensures that the work is done in a timely manner and has specifications spelled out that if a job is partially completed one day, there is a deadline for the work to be completed.

A man uses a chainsaw to cut into a fallen tree

Creating defensible space often involves removing fallen wood. Photo courtesy of Unsplash, Tim Umphreys

Colorado

Abby Silver, Wildfire Partners

Wildfire Partners has been collaborating with Mile High Youth Corps (MHYC) (Denver) to provide wildfire mitigation services at no cost to older, physically challenged or financial need homeowners in our program. The Youth Corps crew members are between 18-24 years old and have been contracted for between three and ten weeks each summer for 40 hours per week to complete the identified projects. For many years Boulder County staff has been identifying the vital need of helping our seniors with their wildfire mitigation and talks included the idea of using youth corps to meet this need. So, when we learned that MHYC had chainsaw crews that worked on wildfire mitigation, we reached out to them to form this partnership. We have supported a total of 83 homes since the program began in 2018.

Staffing, Funding and Logistics: We have been funding the program through a FEMA grant. We use staff from our Boulder County wildfire mitigation team to run the program. We have had one main program coordinator who is the point person for the crew and the homeowners. This has been a ~20 hour per week time commitment during the active project period (which varied from 5-8 weeks with MHYC active in the field for 3-6 weeks) plus additional hours during the pre-season planning and outreach development phases. Other program staff is also involved in recruiting homeowners and at a higher-level interface with MHYC staff (i.e., contract negotiations and scope of services agreements).

COVID-19 Impacts: We supported MHYC in their adopted COVID-19 protocols and communicated their standards and expectations to our participants via email. We ensured that the crew knew to provide a field toilet (vs prior years where homeowners had welcomed them into their homes) and that homeowners knew to provide single-serving snacks if they wanted to offer treats.

Advice to Other Practitioners: There is a need to acknowledge that working with Youth Corps is not the same as working with professional contractors, and therefore will require hands-on management by your staff. That said, it’s worth the effort and rewarding in a different way from hiring professional crews. I advise clearly communicating these differences and setting realistic expectations at the outset with program participants (i.e., homeowners).

The Youth Corps are great ambassadors for our program. They focus on one community in the county and become a presence for the weeks they spend there, which helps elevate the profile of Wildfire Partners and of wildfire mitigation efforts in the county. I invariably receive emails from homeowners lauding the work ethic, manners, and positive attitude of the crew, talking about what interesting people they are. And similarly, the crew have formed strong bonds with a number of the homeowners and are always grateful for their kindness. Homeowners often work alongside the crew, and most of them provide (often homemade) meals and treats. The young people, who are generally from urban areas outside Colorado, get to experience camping in our beautiful mountain environment and feeling part of our mountain communities. There is a broad spectrum of benefits to this collaboration and a great exchange of life experience between young and older, city and rural. The Youth Corps are learning on-the-job skills in wildfire mitigation; the homeowners are getting a solid start on their Wildfire Partners’ mitigation to-do list which often moves the needle from “overwhelming” to “I can take it from here”.

Smoke billows up behind a mountain range

Pine Gulch Fire, Colorado, 2020. Photo courtesy of Unsplash, Frederick Bartles.

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Cynthia Latham, Rotary Wildfire Ready

Our organization, Rotary Wildfire Ready, is engaging and educating Colorado seniors about wildfire preparedness through Zoom calls, Facebook posts, and outreach to community organizations during COVID-19.

So far, our biggest reach has been through our Facebook page that we began in early October 2020. We share our posts on multiple local community Facebook pages. We feel Facebook is the most efficient way to get the word out to a lot of people, we are closely monitoring the audiences reached to ensure widespread impact, but we don’t yet have any specific data on the audience demographics.

In March 2020, we started community Zoom video educational presentations and launched our website. We are at the beginning of our educational outreach programs to all residents in Conifer, Pine, Bailey, Evergreen, Genessee, and Lookout Mountain, Colorado. We are certainly not just targeting seniors with our outreach but are definitely getting in front of them. We do Zoom calls on wildfire preparedness to any groups requesting them. Most of the attendees have been seniors so far from church groups, neighborhood social groups, men’s groups, Kiwanis, and Rotary groups, with an average age of 68.

We’re also in the process of preparing a number of targeted brochures on subjects like home hardening, defensible space, evacuation preparedness and more, which we expect to have done at the start of 2021. We’re also converting a fire truck into a rolling educational laboratory on wildfire preparedness which we will make available at local events. Our goal is to increase wildfire readiness with our residents to help save lives. We also hope that we can create a model that can be used by other communities in wildfire prone areas.

The average age of our development team is 65 and we have 12 community leaders as well as Rotarians working on the project. We’ve raised money to fund our efforts from local Rotary members as well as through private donations. This type of work takes very strong leadership, and I personally spend about 20+ hours a week working on the project.

COVID-19 Impacts: We’ve been continuously adapting because of COVID-19. We planned a large event in April that would have reached over 3,000 people, which had to be cancelled. We also had planned to prioritize the conversion of the fire truck but as so many public events were cancelled we pivoted to our remote education offerings through Zoom and social media.

One of our biggest successes so far is the partners we work with. Local fire departments review and approve all our materials and two of the local wildfire captains serve on our board. They review all meeting notes from our Community Safety Team and Community Education Team and provide input on priorities they would like to see us cover. We have created an annual communications calendar and are working with the Public Information Officers from local fire departments to help coordinate educational messaging throughout the community. In addition to the fire department personnel we also have a local county extension agent on our education team. We’re at the beginning of a multi-year effort with the goal to help our communities become fire adapted, so our to-do list is really big. Because of that, we’re focused on where we can make the biggest impact with our efforts first and that includes supporting seniors in our community.

Advice to Other Practitioners:  You need to find passionate volunteers and partner with fire professionals, forest service professionals, and other wildfire experts. Good partnerships and collaboration help move work forward.

An older man holds an iPhone out in front of him

Connecting seniors through technology like Facebook helps spread important education and emergency messaging . Photo courtesy of Unsplash, Adam Niescioruk.

Additional FAC Net Reading Related to Age-Vulnerable Community Members:

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Are you working with seniors in your community? Tell us about your programs below!

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2 thoughts on “Helping Our Senior Community Prepare”

  1. Ann Walker says:

    Great article and awareness of the needs of our elderly and aging population. Thank you!

  2. Betsy Cawn says:

    In Lake County, CA, our senior centers are not considered “essential facilities,” even tho the older adults who are enrolled in the federally-funded Elder Nutrition Programs (administered by the State Department of Aging and local Social Services departments) could find safe evacuation conditions there should they have to be removed from their wildfire-threatened homes. The County Office of Emergency Services does not work with the centers to establish the criteria for them to serve as “triage” centers or “temporary evacuation points” to help frail elderly in the transition from their own homes to specialized shelter situations where they can additionally be protected from communicable diseases.

    Given that 27% (at last US Census, ~2018) of our population is aged 60 or over, and the State’s Office of Emergency Services, department of Access & Functional Needs estimates that roughly 50% of our population is to some degree disabled, the logical deployment of senior centers to prepare homebound older adults and their caregivers for easily-anticipated “seasonal” wildfires — in an area that CalFire has nick-named a “Fire Factory” — is a practical approach that previously active senior citizens would welcome. But for some reason, the population of older adults, disabled persons, and community-based service providers are virtually “invisible” to the elected officials and appointed responsible parties for inclusion in action planning to reduce everyone’s risk of catastrophic disasters.

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