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House of Refuge: How a Stranger’s Home Saved California Hospital Evacuees

The most remarkable thing about the fire was its speed.

On the day it famously leveled Paradise, Calif., last November, the Camp Fire grew by 10,000 acres in 90 horrifying minutes—a rate of a football field per second.1 That sudden acceleration thrust a lot of people into crisis mode—including the staff at Paradise’s Adventist Health Feather River Hospital. 

Their resulting evacuation produced some taut life-or-death moments, acts of bravery and strength, and ultimately a spine-tingling feel-good story for a small group of nurses and EMS providers who survived. In June more than 40 such caregivers were honored by California’s Emergency Medical Services Authority with certificates of commendation and medals for valor and meritorious service. 

Few had experiences as intense as the survivors of Chloe Court. 

“I really feel like we were just doing our jobs,” says Tamara Ferguson, an OB nurse who earned a Meritorious Service medal for her actions that day, “It’s humbling to be recognized, but we were just doing whatever we could to save lives.” 

Sudden Evacuation

The fire started around 6:30 a.m. northeast of town. By 7 smoke was visible from the hospital; by 7:15 you could smell it inside. Around 7:45 Ryan Ashlock, the administrator in charge that day, called the code for an external threat.2 

There wasn’t much time to react. By 8 a.m. the hospital was in a mandatory evacuation area, though leaders still hoped to shelter in place behind its firewalls. But within five minutes flames were visible from both ends of its campus, and at 8:07, with winds roaring and fire squeezing in from both sides, Ashlock ordered a full evacuation. Around 280 patients and staff had to go.  

Ambulatory patients started walking. Staff pushed others in wheelchairs and beds to the ED entrance and out to the helipad. They called for transport help, but it was already too late: The swelling fire and gridlocked traffic blocked ambulance support, and the smoke nixed helicopters. Ultimately only two ambulances from Chico made it to the hospital.3  

“Even as we were running toward the front of the ER, the nursing officer was saying, ‘If you have a car, get in your car. If you can take patients, take them and get out of here!’” recalls Ferguson. “At that point probably half the staff had already left to take care of their own issues. 

“My car was far off, so I decided to wait. I could see fire in the distance, but I decided I’d go down in one of the ambulances and help down the hill.”

The easiest patients were gone quickly with police and other drivers, leaving the most critical, along with about 15 staff. Ferguson ended up in one of the Butte County ambulances from Chico. With her were a fellow labor/delivery nurse, an ICU nurse, a medic, an EMT, and a patient on a ventilator. Following the other—this one carrying a paraplegic, a patient with a brain bleed, and a new c-section mother still numb, all backboarded to fit—they finally fled, bound for Enloe Hospital in Chico. 

In a little over 40 minutes, Feather River staff had gotten 80 patients safely out. But for some the ordeal had only begun. 

Panicked and Crying

There aren’t many roads out of Paradise, and they were choked as its population fled. The fire had fully arrived. The ambulances fought about half a mile. Hundreds of vehicles clotted the road, leaving nowhere to go. Some were starting to ignite. 

“That was the period where we all kind of thought, Wow, we’re not going to live through this,” says Ferguson. “People were panicked and crying. That’s when we all made our phone calls.” 

The lead ambulance stalled and began to burn. In desperation the second pulled down the nearest side street, Chloe Court, a cul-de-sac where two last houses weren’t yet aflame. 

They accessed the nearest through a dog door and opened the garage. Everyone rapidly shuttled the patients from the burning ambulance to the new shelter. They were joined by a pediatrician from the hospital, David Russell, who’d likewise abandoned his logjammed vehicle as flames bore down—he’d seen the ambulance as he ran past and heard the new mom’s cries for help. She was the last out of the doomed truck.4 Nearby firefighters pitched in to help; Paradise Fire Chief David Hawks was among them. 

Then they hunkered down in the house and waited. The wind swirled, pushing the fire in every direction. It advanced to the property line. The other intact house began burning. With evacuation impossible, Hawks assigned everyone key jobs to protect the structure protecting them. 

Some cleared brush and gutters. Others kept the roof wet and stamped out spot fires. “He told us, ‘The only way you’re going to live is if you protect this house,’” says Ferguson. “He gave us all jobs, and then he left. We had someone on the roof, someone filling buckets. Someone filled the tub, some were clearing brush and pine needles and pushing it as far away from the house as possible.”

The patients waited helplessly in the garage, caregivers reassuring them whenever they passed.  

A Way Out

After roughly two hours Hawks returned with good news: They had a way out. Everyone piled into the surviving ambulance and a fire vehicle and trailed Hawks—who led them back to the hospital. 

At the ED entrance a couple dozen staffers were busily setting up for basic care, moving gurneys and carts and wheelchairs—“everything they could pull from the ER to help us,” says Ferguson. They unloaded their patients into a makeshift triage operation as other survivors started arriving. 

The danger wasn’t over—random areas were still burning, including the building across the street. That threat kicked back up, forcing relocation of the impromptu care site to the hospital’s helipad. Having already burned, that area finally provided a safe space to care for victims.  

It was mid-afternoon before they finally packed up to leave Paradise. 

“They finally told us, ‘Form a conga line, and we’re going to get out of here,’” says Ferguson. “At this point sheriff’s vehicles and vans were showing up, and we were just taking people off gurneys and putting them into cars.” There were only a few left when Ferguson made her departure in a deputy’s car. 

They left in a convoy and headed for Oroville, some 20 miles away. Flames still licked at houses as they departed Paradise; at one point fire stalled the convoy, then released it. As the miles passed, though, burned landscape gave way back to green. “It was like you just entered a whole new world,” says Ferguson. “You could see the glow in the distance, but you couldn’t see anything burning anymore.”

Half an hour later they were in Oroville. Ferguson borrowed a cell phone to tell her family she’d survived. Relatives in the region converged for a tearful reunion. Others weren’t so lucky; her fellow nurse, unable to reach her father in nearby Concow all day, later learned he hadn’t made it. 

That moment to pause was when the enormity of events finally dawned. 

“I actually kind of had a feeling like maybe I hadn’t lived,” says Ferguson. “I think I was in shock that I’d lived through it, but was also thinking maybe I didn’t live and was now just kind of looking down on my life. It really was very unreal.”

So Many Stories

For several months after the fire, Ferguson hosted displaced family members at her home in Chico. There were 16 people and six extra animals in the house until March. 

Feather River paid its employees into February, but the hospital won’t be reopening soon. Employees were offered jobs with other Adventist facilities, though the closest is 45 minutes away. Ferguson got a job in Oroville’s ER and returned to work in April. She hopes to ultimately relocate to Sacramento, maybe get into travel nursing. 

While she’s spoken to a number of media sources since November, Ferguson is emphatic about sharing any credit. Lots of people performed bravely during the fire, she says, and many have their own harrowing tales.

“There were just so many stories,” she says. “One of our ER managers had his truck melted, and Toyota gave him a new truck. A CNA pulled a patient from a burning vehicle while the other person burned to death. We went back there, and nobody knew anybody’s story or what they’d just endured, but everyone had done really amazing, heroic things.

“It’s extraordinary that 20,000 people were evacuated from Paradise, and I think that that took everyone going above and beyond. It took a whole community to come together, not just nurses or EMS. Everyone helped each other, and everyone has some really amazing stories. It’s terrible that 86 people died, but there’s still 20,000 who didn’t, and that took a lot of people—not just a few people at one house working together.”  

References

1. Jones J. One of the California wildfires grew so fast it burned the equivalent of a football field every second. CNN, 2018 Nov 10; www.cnn.com/2018/11/09/us/california-wildfires-superlatives-wcx/index.html.

2. Gabbert B. Feather River Hospital evacuated 280 patients and staff as Camp Fire approached. Wildfire Today, 2019 Feb 26; https://wildfiretoday.com/2019/02/26/feather-river-hospital-evacuated-280-patients-and-staff-as-camp-fire-approached/.

3. Sutherland S. 135 Minutes. NFPA Journal, 2019 Jan–Feb; www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Publications-and-Media/NFPA-Journal/2019/January-February-2019/POV/Perspectives.

4. Resnik M. Paradise doctor pulls woman from burning ambulance, helps save others. KCRA, 2018 Nov 14; www.kcra.com/article/paradise-doctor-pulls-woman-from-burning-ambulance-helps-save-others/25107741.

John Erich is senior editor of EMS World. Reach him at john.erich@emsworld.com. 

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