"A lot of people in Paradise lived on a deck of cards, and if you pulled one out, everything collapses," a former nurse at a hospital that burned down said.
CORNING, California — Bette Friendshuh still hasn’t been able to clean the dark flecks of blood from the corner of the cabinet or the faded brown carpet in their tidy, otherwise spotless RV. The memory of her husband’s death is still too fresh.
Greg Friendshuh's oxygen tank and rain jacket still sit by the rickety door. His driver’s license, which had recently arrived in the mail, is the only picture she has left of him after the Camp fire engulfed the Northern California town of Paradise about five months ago. The couple miraculously made it to safety after waking at 8:30 a.m. to a neighbor’s frantic pounding on the door. Bette Friendshuh was able to grab her purse, her husband’s handmade pine medicine box, and his oxygen tank. They lost everything else.
Now she’s trying to process losing him, too. They hadn't been apart since Greg started pulling Bette’s ponytail in English class when she was 15. The 78-year-old died from a brain hemorrhage on March 15, two days after falling in the narrow hallway of their new trailer. She marked it in her calendar — it was the day before she was supposed to vacuum.
“I heard a crash around 2 in the morning and I found him lying right there,” Bette said, pointing to the carpet next to her feet. “There’s blood, right there. I kept saying, ‘Honey, talk to me.’ He was awake, but there was nothing there.”
While Greg had health problems before, his wife said it was the stress of losing their home, carefully crafted routines, and security that strained his already delicate health. In interviews, other residents have attributed their health problems or deaths of friends and family members to the Camp fire.
“A lot of people in Paradise lived on a deck of cards, and if you pulled one out, everything collapses,” said Birgitte Gundersen, a former nurse at Paradise’s Feather River Hospital. “Not only did they lose their homes, they lost their doctors, and their health is a low priority right now because they are trying to survive their own trauma while doing the nonstop job of starting over.”
Gundersen is in the process of starting a mobile medical clinic to better care for survivors in the area because it’s so hard to connect people with resources.
“My mother’s neighbor just passed away,” she said. “They don’t know how to use the internet really, they don’t know where to go, and they’re alone. A lot of elderly are just starting to let go and we’re all wondering about the death toll after the fire.”
A FEMA spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the agency does not track deaths after a disaster, which is the responsibility of state and local officials.
“Determining whether someone’s death was directly or indirectly related to a disaster is always difficult to do, and the decision ultimately rests with the professional judgment of the attending physician,” the spokesperson said.
But that's not happening in Butte County, where officials are still grappling with the overwhelming recovery. Sheriff Kory Honea, who also serves as the coroner, said they aren’t officially tracking the number of displaced residents who have died since the Camp fire, but added that federal officials had prepared him for the phenomenon.
“FEMA, when they came in, they told us to expect that after such a traumatic event, that people will die,” Honea said. "It's heartbreaking."
For families still grappling with the fallout of the Camp fire, the idea that their dead loved ones won't be officially included in the disaster's death toll is hard to swallow.
“If it wasn’t for that fire, my brother would have had another normal day,” said Dave Foster, whose twin brother, Dwight, died in February from a heart attack. “He never had heart problems before. Never told me about chest pains.”
Foster, 70, said his brother died at Rideout Memorial Hospital near Yuba City while waiting for a bed to open up at UC Davis’s cardiovascular center.
“When he saw the fire directly across the street, he told me his life flashed before his eyes,” Foster said. “I absolutely think his death should be counted.”
Hospitals in the area say they’re struggling to keep up with a tide of new patients after the Camp fire destroyed a major hospital and several clinics and nursing centers, forcing many medical professionals out of the area.
“Before the fire, we were running 68,000 ER cases a year. Now we’re up to 85,000,” said Mike Wiltermood, president of Enloe Medical Center. “People are suffering from severe complications and require acute care and we have nowhere to send them. We’re pulling beds out of a hat and opening up old mothball sections of our hospital. It’s all we can do.”
The center is also seeing an “astronomical” increase in patients with severe mental health and addiction issues, he added.
“FEMA told us that in a year we will see a sharp increase in suicides, and I don’t really know what to do,” he said. “We’re standing in for all these lost resources and nobody is offering to help us out. It’s hard to imagine how we can keep this up.”
For people like Kathy Jackson, it’s one urn at a time. She started making them for the families of the 85 official Camp fire victims, but keeps getting requests from people all over the US whose loved ones had died after initially surviving the wildfire.
In total, she, her son, and her husband have made 140, and even took a second job to help pay for the arduous process.
“People went into the hospital right after and never came out,” Jackson said.
For others, the impact of evacuating hit later, often in stages.
“There was a gal whose aunt was living in a Red Cross shelter and caught the flu and died,” she said.
When the Friendshuhs finally made it to a safe spot in Chico as the Camp fire raged, the chaotic evacuation and smoke-filled air made it hard for Greg to breathe. He ended up spending nearly a month in the hospital while Bette lived in church shelters and fairground auditoriums, surrounded by strangers and trying to understand how to get help from government agencies.
With the help of volunteers and a little money from FEMA, the couple purchased a 25-year-old trailer on Jan. 9 and settled in a new RV park about an hour away in Corning. Surrounded by a quiet lake and dozens of other displaced residents, Bette didn’t know how long they were going to be there and was doing her best to make it a home with donated items. She placed a new ceramic praying angel between the two front seats, and installed a wooden “Gone Fishin’” sign to hold her husband’s baseball caps.
Now, she’s waiting for Greg’s ashes and thinking about where to put the urn Jackson made for her.
“We had planned to stay there until the end of our days,” she said of their spot in Paradise.
The couple married in 1960 in the California town where they grew up. He was a Marine and a carpenter. They raised two kids and saved enough to buy an RV to travel the country, eventually settling into lot No. 53 in Paradise’s Skyway Villa mobile home park nearly 10 years ago.
Like many of Paradise’s residents, the Friendshuhs were retired seniors, living on fixed incomes, and chose the small community at the base of the Sierra Nevada Foothills because it was secure and had resources to help them as they aged. Greg had been recovering from a recent bypass heart surgery when the fire enveloped their town.
“I had him home for a day and a half. Two nights,” Bette said, raising her fingers. “And then the fire.”