Families mourn indirect, ‘forgotten’ deaths from Camp Fire
By Camille Von Kaenel
February 11th, 2020
PARADISE — Donovan James Iverson’s family says he died because of the Camp Fire. But he does not appear in the only official accounting of the disaster’s victims, the Butte County coroner’s list of 85.
The 24-year-old, who lived with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, passed away shortly after a harrowing evacuation. His story is one example of how official statistics are under-estimating the spiraling death toll of the disaster, which is already the deadliest wildfire in state history. And it’s not over: 15 months later, people are still dying from complications from the fire, including mental and emotional anguish and respiratory issues from the smoke, according to interviews with family and friends.
This newspaper has identified at least 50 additional deaths medical experts and lawyers have linked to the Camp Fire.
“These are the ones who have been forgotten,” said Tammie Strong, Iverson’s mother and full-time caretaker for 13 years. “I am praying for the families still struggling. My year has been a roller coaster.”
People who died as an indirect result of the disaster aren’t memorialized with crosses on the Skyway. They don’t get profiles in the newspaper. They aren’t counted by any local, state or national agency.
That has consequences: Most often, they had pre-existing vulnerabilities and passed away because their care was interrupted. But the expanded death toll isn’t being factored in to future emergency preparedness or health system capacity planning.
Strong agreed to share her story in hopes that others with similar struggles would feel seen.
What’s a disaster death?
On the morning of the fire, as flames closed in on their rental, Strong grabbed whatever medical equipment she could, including the wheelchair and breathing support Iverson used. She was going to get him out alive. As they fled, she sang calming songs. They made it to Chico covered in smoke and dehydrated.
The shelters were not equipped to handle his medical needs, so she went to a family’s house. She knew something had gone wrong. The evacuation had disturbed his careful balance of medication. He had internal injuries from the stress from the evacuation. Over the next few weeks, he went in and out of the hospital, overcoming one complication before being struck by another one.
Meanwhile, Butte County authorities were starting to count victims. They crossed names off the list of missing. They collected burned remains from Concow and Paradise, Magalia and Butte Creek Canyon.
Butte County Sheriff-Coroner Kory Honea said he was tracking deaths that were close in time and in location to the disaster. He said he is willing to investigate other deaths. But he has to draw the line somewhere.
“I’m sure this will have had an impact on the health of many many thousands of people, and that will become more and more apparent as the years pass,” he said. “But I don’t know that there’s a system to allow us to track all of that.”
Counting disaster deaths has become a national controversy in recent years, coming to the forefront in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The government there eventually revised its death toll of 67 to around 3,000 after media outlets and researchers at George Washington University suggested including deaths from disease and health complications after the disaster.
“There’s no clear definition on what constitutes a disaster death — that is really the heart of the issue,” explained Sue Anne Bell, a nurse scientist and assistant professor at the University of Michigan. She’s specialized in disasters and spent a few weeks helping respond to the Camp Fire.
Now, Bell is part of a congressionally-mandated National Academies of Science study to find the best way to count deaths from disasters. They’re particularly interested in vulnerable populations, who have historically been undercounted and undervalued.
“With disasters increasing in intensity, frequency and severity, this information is needed now more than ever, sadly,” she said.
Iverson’s family knew he would die some day, but they had expected at least a few more years with him. He passed away on Dec. 17, 2018. The doctor agreed the Camp Fire was to blame. The Federal Emergency Management Agency paid for funeral expenses.
“It was just so surreal,” said Strong. “First it was the house, and I was just trying to save Donovan. And I lost him. That just broke me right there.”
Wrongful death claims ‘the tip of the iceberg’
Now, she’s still mourning him and finding her own way, alone. She’s in a better place, now: She received a tiny home as a gift and is excited about her job prospects. Part of the process has included filing a wrongful death claim against Pacific Gas & Electric, Corp.
The claims, which were due Dec. 31, have now become one of the first publicly-accessible measures of the indirect deaths from the Camp Fire.
A review of the claims by this newspaper identified 50 people who are not on the county’s official list of 85 but whose families said died as a result of the disaster.
Each claim has been vetted by a medical expert and a lawyer. They’ve had to gather evidence showing that the person would not have died were it not for the Camp Fire. Some claims were turned down, lawyers said, because the evidence would not necessarily stand in court.
The claims are posted publicly on a website managed by Prime Clerk. The online database is imperfect, lawyers said, so the number may not be exact.
It also doesn’t come close to capturing the full death toll because many families have not filed wrongful death claims for a variety of reasons, including believing they were not eligible.
Joe Earley, a lawyer who is representing many of the claims against PG&E and who is also a Camp Fire survivor himself, called the list “the tip of the iceberg.” He said most of the people whose family members he represents had existing conditions, were elderly and died shortly after the fire.
“I believe those people are just as much a victim as everyone else,” he said.
The 50 identified as part of the review lived in Magalia, Paradise and Concow, in homes, retirement communities and nursing facilities, according to the addresses on the claims.
Public obituaries and GoFundMe pages offer an additional glimpse into their lives: there’s the husband and wife who were deeply involved in Paradise community organizations and passed away within a few months of each other. There’s the grandmother for whom losing a home was just too much stress. One person had a stroke after forgetting anti-stroke medication behind when fleeing, Earley said.
Another person on the list is Ramona Ward, a 95 year old who ran her own rental business and lived on her own, according to her daughter, Virginia Kraft. She was in rehab in Paradise after a successful surgery at the time of the fire, and was moved to a Chico facility where she got sick with a norovirus. She died in January. Her death certificate claims hypertension and a cerebral vascular accident.
Kraft decided to file a wrongful death claim after Earley suggested it could be an option.
The claim could eventually provide her some compensation. The distribution of money from the $13.5 billion PG&E settlement among victims will be decided by a committee of mediators later in the summer. Earley, who has long argued negligent death cases, says he thinks compensation should be equal between direct deaths and “attenuated deaths”.
What Kraft wants most of all, though, is recognition.
“The impact of the fire includes things we don’t think about, like people being transported elsewhere, or the feelings you go through,” she said.
Strong, too, has sought ways to remember her son. He was a visible part of the community, she said. He was good at talking with children about his wheelchair and breathing support and refused to see himself as disabled.
“He was really a force of nature,” said Strong.
He liked to play, too. The two of them had built hundreds of Lego sets together. They loved elaborate costumes, like the zombie with his guts spilling out Iverson portrayed at Halloween. Once, he even won a prize at a Comic-Con as Batman. Strong was Wonder Woman.
On the anniversary of his death, Strong and her daughters decided to go up to the lookout point on the Skyway for an intimate, emotional ceremony. The weather was gray. They hugged and cried. Strong hooked a lock onto the fence. She had scratched Iverson’s initials and birth and death dates on it. On the front were the words “You are my sunshine,” a song reference. The back said “Wonder woman loves her Batman”. The sides of the lock had the phrase “Paradise Strong” and a third key date: 11.08.18.
If you would like to share your story of an indirect death or a severe health issue from the fire, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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