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Retiree village in California fire disaster is the hardest hit

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The hardest-hit community, Paradise, California, was a popular place to retire, with more than one-quarter of its residents 65 or older. Daniel Cayer (above), who lives out of a camping trailer after fleeing the Camp Fire.

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Patti Saunders, who has been staying at the East Avenue Church shelter since fleeing the fires.

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Camp Hess Kramer, a Jewish summer camp, in the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California. Among the blackened and charred areas in Southern California were hiking trails overlooking the ocean, summer camps and historic movie sets.

Chico, California

THE deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, the Camp Fire, was finally brought under control by firefighters on Sunday after raging for 17 days. But for many people left homeless by the disaster, the most frightening part is just beginning.

The hardest-hit community, Paradise, California, was a popular place to retire, with more than one-quarter of its residents 65 or older, according to census figures. Many of them have now lost everything late in life and must start over from zero, often with little support and with major health challenges.

After a battle with throat cancer, Daniel Cayer wears a tracheostomy tube, breathes through a hole in his neck and speaks through a device pressed to his cheek. He had been living alone in a trailer park in Paradise, and had planned to celebrate his 72nd birthday with a barbecue on Nov 8, the day the fire started. Cramped emergency evacuation shelters can be dangerous for older people with health conditions like Mr Cayer. Infections can spread quickly, like the norovirus outbreak that sickened nearly 150 fire evacuees last week.

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But Mr Cayer said he had no family to turn to instead; he hasn't spoken with his daughter in 15 years, he said, nor with his sons in 30 years. So he's been sleeping in a camper outside a church shelter in Chico, the first place where many fleeing Paradise have taken refuge - and where, because of the fire, the air quality has ranked among the worst on the planet. "Most people would put on a mask," Mr Cayer said through his speech device. He pointed to the hole in his throat. "I can't." Many of the thousands of structures in Paradise and surrounding parts of Butte County that were lost in the fire were nursing homes, assisted living facilities, other geriatric care centres or mobile home parks catering to retirees. Roughly 2,300 residents of the fire zone had relied on in-home health aides, according to Shelby Boston, county director of employment and social services.

"There were a lot of people who were barely able to make it at home, and those are the people that tend in situations like this to make their way to the shelters," said Dr Andy Miller, public health officer for Butte County. Some patients with memory issues and the early stages of dementia have had their conditions made worse by the chaos of evacuation and by losing their daily routines, he said.

Coping with the aftermath of such a disaster can be daunting enough at any age, but for those in their 70s and 80s, it can seem almost impossible. "Half of them don't have it in them to start all over again," said Mari Stewart, nursing supervisor for the clinic at the East Avenue Church in Chico, which has been turned into a shelter.

By the time the Camp Fire was declared contained on Sunday, it had burnt more than 153,000 acres and destroyed more than 18,000 structures, almost 14,000 of them residences, with hundreds more damaged. The death toll for the fire stood at 85.

Most of the 500 evacuees who have been in and out of the East Avenue Church shelter since the fire began have been older people, said Ron Zimmer, the church's pastor. The challenge, he said, is not just caring for them, but finding long-term answers for people who have lost everything and have little wherewithal to rebuild.

Younger families "tend to have larger social circles," Mr Zimmer said, but "our seniors tend to have closing social circles, so they don't have anywhere else to go." After reaching safety, the first problem for many older evacuees was being without medical supplies and medications they depend on. The valve on Mr Cayer's trach tube must be cleaned and replaced multiple times daily, for example, but he had to leave most of his essentials behind in Paradise; now he worries about his access to oxygen and about getting sick.

Doctors, nurses and volunteers at the emergency shelters worked to locate and contact the evacuees' primary care physicians - many of whom had to flee the fire themselves - and get hold of pharmacy records or other information that would help them replace the missing medications quickly. NYTIMES