With 86 dead, the November 2018 Camp fire was the deadliest wildfire in California history. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Camp fire burned 153,336 acres in Butte County November 8–25, destroying 13,972 residences and 4,821 buildings in the process.
To put a human face on this terrible tragedy, EMS World spoke to two people with EMS ties who were both profoundly affected by the fire. Mickey Huber is Butte County EMS’ assistant chief of operations, and Bobbie Merica is CEO and founder of Moulage Concepts Inc.
On the Front Lines: Mickey Huber
Butte County EMS Assistant Chief Mickey Huber was involved in the Camp fire from the beginning. At 0630 on the morning of November 8, when the Camp fire began near Pulga, Calif., Huber was nearby, driving his SUV to teach a class at a neighboring EMS agency.
“I heard the call go out, saw the little smoke column start in the sky, and headed south to Gridley,” says Huber. “Twenty minutes later when I got to Gridley, it was a very large smoke column. I went seven more miles to the town of Live Oak, and it was massive. I mean, it was already starting to blot out the sun.”
At this point Huber called to cancel his class and assemble an EMS strike team, drove to his operations center in Chico to take command of his people, and exchanged his flammable polyester clothing for Nomex. (With units from other areas included, Butte County EMS ultimately had 37 ambulances working the fire scene.)
By 8 a.m. Huber was heading to Paradise when “the all-call went out that the fire was getting close to Paradise (where 85 people eventually died), and we needed to evacuate the hospital.” Knowing Skyway Road, the main road west from Paradise to Chico, would be jammed with evacuees, he drove around to approach from the southeast on Pentz Road. “By the time I reached Pentz Road and Pearson Road, the fire had already closed off Pentz Road, and getting to the hospital was not doable from the south,” he says.
As a result Huber put on his reserve deputy sheriff hat and aided local law enforcement in evacuating civilians. Meanwhile, one of his crews evacuating patients from Adventist Health Feather River hospital had to abandon their ambulance when it caught fire on the roadway. “Two crews, along with their patients and three nurses from Feather River hospital, had to shelter in place at a house,” Huber says. “I spent the next hour and a half trying to figure out how to get them to safety.” Eventually the crew was rescued by a nearby fire engine.
Now in the center of fire‑ravaged Paradise, Huber resumed helping with evacuations until he overheard a call on the Butte County sheriff’s dispatch channel about a woman in labor in distress two miles away. The woman, Anastasia Skinner, was in serious danger of hemorrhaging to death due to a prior condition if she delivered vaginally. A c‑section at a medical facility was required to save her life.
It took nearly half an hour for Huber to get there. With the smoke and high winds making a helicopter evacuation impossible, he and the sheriff’s deputies on site decided to drive Skinner out in Skinner’s SUV, surrounded by other law enforcement officers. A retired Paradise fire battalion chief drove Skinner’s vehicle in the convoy.
“We took her five miles to a waiting ambulance in the south end, which could get her to Enloe Medical Center in Chico,” Huber says. “It took 45 minutes to get there through the crowded roads around Paradise.”
During the drive Huber did whatever he could to slow down Skinner’s labor. It worked: She made it to Enloe, where doctors were able to stop her premature labor. Zoele Mickey Skinner was safely delivered by c‑section in early December as planned.
“After all Mickey did for us, we felt we needed to do something,” says Anastasia’s husband, Daniel, who suggested they name their baby girl after him. The story was told, along with photos of Huber holding Zoele, in a tweet from the Enloe Medical Center (@enloe.medical).
Huber’s day wasn’t over after helping Skinner. He worked well into the next day, helping evacuate civilians and patients from Paradise.
“It was truly an apocalyptic sight to behold,” Huber says. “But not one of our first responders—EMS, fire, and police—was killed or even seriously injured while working the fire scene on November 8.”
Trauma at a Distance: Bobbie Merica
Bobbie Merica is known to the U.S. EMS industry as CEO of Moulage Concepts, a maker of realistic 3D moulage/simulated wounds and injuries for EMS and medical training. Her devotion to public safety through simulation training is both sincere and all‑consuming: As the Chico Enterprise‑Recorder newspaper said about Merica in a recent profile, “One of the most notable times inspiration struck was when she was cooking a can of cream of mushroom soup and realized the color could be used to recreate the pus inside of an ulcer.”
Merica’s home and business were located in Paradise and destroyed on November 8. But that was the least of the traumas she suffered that day.
When the Camp fire broke out, Merica was attending the 2018 Synthetic and Simulation Training Summit in Orlando, where she was scheduled to give a presentation on moulage.
“My husband, Nick, reached out to me from home to let me know that there was a fire in the canyon, which wasn’t unusual,” she says. “I told him to save the photographs and computer if he were forced to evacuate.
“Forty minutes later, as I was waiting to go up on the podium to talk about the benefits of realism in mass-casualty training events, he called again to tell me good‑bye from the road and let me know he loved me.
“I was shocked, as you might imagine, and I asked him what he could see,” Merica says. “He said, ‘There’s fire all around me. There are embers blowing to the side, and the air is very thick with smoke. There are abandoned police cars beside the road. We’re in a line of cars, and it’s not moving—and people’s tires are melting.”
Helpless to intervene, Merica searched through her fire safety and EMS training knowledge to try to help her husband over the phone.
“I yelled back at him that he needed to focus on nothing else but getting down the hill he was on,” she says. “I did my run‑through: ‘What do you have in the truck that could be used as a tool? Can you find a cement structure to crawl into?’ He told me an ambulance had just exploded near him.”
Merica’s husband sent her cell phone video from the roadway, showing the cars surrounded by flames, smoke, and embers, nobody moving. As she continued to try to talk her husband to safety, “we lost contact.”
Not knowing whether her husband was alive or dead, Merica assumed the attitude she’s learned from the EMS industry, which is to “move fast and fall apart later.” So she took to the stage and delivered her talk as scheduled, “talking about the importance of training realism and how it was paramount to success, especially in preparing for these types of situations.”
Merica then left the stage and tried to find out what was going on in Paradise and the fate of her husband.
It was a long, tense wait. “I heard from him about seven hours later,” says Merica.
Here’s what happened: Despite the traffic jam on the road, her husband’s truck and a number of other vehicles had been diverted into a small nearby parking lot. Two fire trucks were also on the lot—one on each side. “They sprayed water onto about 100 cars, trying to keep them cool as the fire raced by,” she says. “He said you could hear petroleum tanks exploding all around as the flames got nearer.”
Once the flames had passed through, the fire crews moved the cars to a larger parking lot with concrete structures. They waited there until the fire scene was stabilized and people could be safely evacuated. This was when Merica’s husband got the chance to contact her. The next day they learned their home and business had been destroyed.
Since then, Bobbie Merica has been rebuilding her family’s life and finding new locations for her home and business. (She is currently being helped by her EMS colleagues through a GoFundMe campaign) She says the Camp fire convinced her about the importance of integrated first-responder training and incident command to deal with such enormous catastrophes. After all, “these perfect storms are coming together more frequently and more rapidly than they ever have,” says Merica.
James Careless is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to EMS World.