By David Russell ’12
First responders — firefighters, paramedics, and law enforcement personnel, who each day may put themselves in harrowing experiences — have always been held in high regard. Through the events of Nov. 8, 2018, I now have a deeper solemn respect for their service. Had it not been for their efforts, many more people would have perished that day. I am deeply grateful for their service. The Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. I want to give you a glimpse of my experience on that day, the divine protection, and a few lessons learned.
It was Thursday morning. The only things different were the soon anticipated delivery of our third child and my parents visiting. I gave hugs and kisses for my wife and two children on my way out the door while they were finishing up morning devotions. On leaving my east-facing door, the sunrise was more red than usual. Smoke was coming low and fast over the treetops. “There is a new fire,” I told my wife, but I found no information online about a fire. I went to do morning rounds at Adventist Health Feather River (AHFR) Hospital and to get more information on the fire. When I arrived at about 7:30, the labor and delivery unit had an unusually uneasy feeling.
“Where is the fire?”
“Seven miles from here.”
“Started at about 6:30.”
Faint smoke smell was noted in the hallways. Billows of smoke rolled past the small window from my workspace. I hurriedly reviewed the newborns’ charts. Talking to the families, I warned them to gather their belongings in case we needed to evacuate. The words came on the overhead, “CODE TRIAGE.”
At 7:54 my wife texted that they were ready to evacuate. Then the overhead said, “CODE BLACK: Immediately move patients to the emergency department for evacuation.”
Moments later I saw AHFR CFO Ryan Ashlock rush onto the unit shouting, “Get out! GET OUT,” and then banging on doors trying to get patients, family members, and every person mobilized out of the unit.
At 8:28 it was organized chaos — all staff, patients, and family members shuffling toward the ED. In the midst of the chaos, I gave quick verbal handoff to accepting hospitals for my patients. It was quickly clear that there was no time to wait for ambulances or continued shuffling.
I pulled my truck in line to load patients. “No more ambulatory patients! Get out!” Police directed me northbound on Pentz Road. The wind was sharp and cool. Some embers whipped by, so my windows went up. We inched forward in gridlock. My gas gauge was showing empty. I knew I could run faster than traffic, and I knew the way out of town. I pulled off the road, but too petrified to leave the “safety” of my vehicle, I got back on. A second time I did this. The fire was off to my right now. Explosions started coming from behind me, initially distant, but getting closer. “Lord, please be with everyone here,” I prayed.
On the phone I told my father, “There is active fire to my right, fire behind me, and explosions behind me. This is really… really… bad. I love you; pray for us. What do I do?” He looped my brother, a firefighter, into the conversation. “Cover your face; keep moving.” Then I pulled my truck off the road for the third and final time. “I’m running for it. Pray.”
Upon opening the door, a swirl of embers rained down. The air was hot now. Ducking my head, I took off on foot. I looked up and saw an ambulance with the back doors open and the cabin lights illuminating the patient inside. As I got closer, she beckoned me, “Get me out! Get me out! The ambulance is on fire!”
In a split second, I had a whole conversation of internal struggle — keep running or stay and help? I’m a little abashed the question even went through my mind. There was a sense of calm with the thought that no matter the outcome, the right thing to do was to help the lady out and to abandon my “escape plan.”
Paramedics had already rescued two other patients from the ambulance. I hopped in. “My legs don’t work,” she said. The patient was Heather Roebuck, who had delivered via C-section an hour earlier. A paramedic grabbed the foot of the stretcher. I glanced over my shoulder out the windshield and saw flames from what appeared to be the engine compartment. “Lets go!” We carried her to join the other two patients down the side road. It was apocalyptic and dark as night with embers swirling on the patients, debris burning on both sides of the road, and choking smoke.
The three patients were moved down the road, where Paradise Police Chief David Hawks was orchestrating how we were to shelter in place: put the patients in the garage and defend the house. I made a quick call to my wife to let her know the plan. “I love you.”
THE FIRE FIGHT:
Instructions were relayed: “Find hoses; patrol the perimeter of the house. Look for propane tanks, and make sure they are off.” Everyone was doing his or her part. I readied two hoses, disconnected propane tanks, and started hosing fire on the corner of the property.
For the next two hours, we did what we could to defend the house against the fury. Brush was cleared and fire was suppressed with garden hoses. One paramedic even scaled the roof to clear pine needles. The reality is that God protected. At one point propane tanks in or near fire hissed, threatening to explode, but they did not. At another time, I was crouched down, dodging thick black smoke and praying for angels to shield the house from embers of a neighboring house aflame.
While I was looking for tools in the garage, Heather (the C-section patient) made an impression on me. While lying on the cold concrete in a dark garage with the world burning down outside, she said, “Thank you for pulling me out of the ambulance.” I didn’t respond immediately. “HEY! Did you hear me?! Thank you for pulling me out of the ambulance!” She was certain to convey her gratitude amidst the tragedy; however, I was also grateful and still am.
I believe Heather’s initial request for help from the ambulance was divinely appointed. A minute or even seconds earlier or later, the opportunity for me to help would not have been there, and I would have continued on my “escape,” which may or may not have been successful. By deciding to take care of others, I was taken care of.
A fire engine came to our location, and when the coast was clear, patients and personnel were loaded into available vehicles to evacuate, but I stopped back at the hospital.
The lower part of the hospital was ablaze, and heavy fire fighting was happening. Several staff had been turned back to the hospital from experiences of running through fire, narrowly escaping their cars being burned, and being saved by bulldozers pushing burning cars off the road. Dr. Peck, an EM physician, was directing the setup of a makeshift ER/triage, making an organized environment to put people at ease.
Staff scavenged supplies from the intact portion of the hospital. As there was need for items, teams of two ventured into the smoke-filled hospital to retrieve more supplies.
Just over 40 people were gathered: evacuated retirees, ambulatory patients, and patients on gurneys. Each one was triaged and tagged green, yellow, or red, but mostly green. Basic needs were the most important. Everyone got a blanket. Water was passed out. Toileting assistance was given as needed. The smoke was still thick, choking patients and staff alike with sensitive lungs.
Had the fire advanced to the newer section, we would have been in jeopardy. The helipad had already been burned through and thus was a safe spot from fire. The whole operation was moved to the helipad. From there one could survey the flaming lower part of the hospital. All we could do was keep people comfortable and wait. Soon sheriffs arrived and gave the go-ahead to drive out. Patients and individuals were triaged and loaded into ambulances, sheriffs’ vehicles, and personal vehicles to caravan out of flaming Paradise.
DELIVERANCE (EXITING THE FIRE ZONE):
Much equipment was abandoned on the helipad as 40+ people were happy to be leaving the area. I caught a ride with someone else as my truck was torched in the fire. Heading southbound on Pentz Road, the devastation was terrible. A standing home was the minority — most of them were gone. The smoke was getting thicker, obscuring vision, and then in an instant we broke into clear blue sky. We were delivered from the fire!
It was 2:15 p.m., and as we looked back, a huge plume of smoke rose into the sky and was being pushed westward. Other people were still in the fire zone. On the other side of town, hundreds were sheltering in place and gridlocked in traffic. Additional fire personnel were just beginning their work, rushing toward the flames. Search and rescue teams were heading into the burn zone.
Meeting my family that evening, we hugged tight and cried, not for loss but for being spared. I was afraid many others did not make it out. As the ash settled, 86 people were confirmed dead from the fire. That was one of the scariest days of my life.
Whether tending to needs in the midst of tragedy or guiding a patient as their “world is burning down,” what a privilege it is for us to continue the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ and to make man whole.
THE FUTURE OF AHFR:
The community in Paradise is forever changed. The extent of damage to the standing portion of Adventist Health Feather River Hospital continues to be evaluated while restorative work is being done. Long-term needs of the community will help shape the services provided by Adventist Health in the Paradise market. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Adventist Health employees have expressed interest in working in Paradise as facilities are re-established. As of Dec. 20, 2018, the largest of the Adventist Health clinics, the Rural Health Center on the Skyway, reopened, providing primary care, dental, and pediatric services to the community.