Barbara McWilliams, a 72-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis from Anderson Springs, Calif., was the first fatality of five in the Sept. 12 Valley Fire in northern California, despite her attendant’s attempts to find a rescuer. “I really, really need some help/info,” pleaded McWilliams’ PCA, Jennifer Hittson, via a widely-shared Facebook status. “I have been trying for over 24 hours to get the elderly disabled woman I work for rescued from her home. … If anyone can get to her by car or foot, or if anyone knows the back roads so we can try to get through that way, please help!”
Hittson left McWilliams’ home on Sept. 12 at 3 p.m. Unbeknownst to her or McWilliams, some brush caught fire about 9 miles away and would soon become a threat. “When I got home, I got on Facebook and realized it was a fire, and it was big,” Hittson told SFGate. Hittson then called McWilliams, who didn’t seem too concerned and had even turned down a ride from neighbors who were leaving the area. “You have to realize what she was probably thinking,” Hittson said to SFGate. “It was a lot of work for her to get out of the house.”
At 6:30 p.m., Hittson called the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, and explained the situation. She was told they were busy with other evacuations but would get there when they could. Hittson called again at 10:30 p.m. and was told the same story. “I just started crying,” she told the LA Times.
On Sunday morning, officials told Hittson they weren’t able to get into the area. McWilliams’ remains were found that evening. Lt. Steve Brooks of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that deputies tried to reach McWilliams early Saturday evening, but by then the entire subdivision was enveloped by flames.
The death of McWilliams, a retired school teacher, has drawn a national outcry. Paul Timmons, CEO of the disaster-relief agency Portlight Strategies, says he’s seen this happen too many times. “It’s just more of the sort of dehumanizing view of those of us with disabilities,“ says Timmons, who had Guillain-Barre syndrome. “They see us as expendable and so for them it’s not as big of a loss if one of us dies.” Timmons believes McWilliams could have been saved if authorities had acted quicker to evacuate her.