Adventist Health Feather River Hospital in Paradise, California, evacuated patients as the Camp Fire ripped through the area on Thursday, transforming what began as an ordinary day into a fight for survival.
The Camp Fire has killed 29 people in Northern California since Thursday, making it one of the deadliest fires in state history, officials said Sunday.
A wildfire approaches Adventist Health Feather River
On Thursday morning, staff at Adventist Health Feather River showed up to work unaware that the Camp Fire was approaching the building, Nichole Jolly, a surgical nurse, said.
At about 7:30 a.m. PT, the hospital received an alert that the fire was approaching. The staff had little time to prepare: "Moments later, flames jumped a canyon separating the hospital from the fire, and the medical staff were ordered to get patients out of the building and then flee themselves," NBC News reports.
Karen Davis, a surgical nurse at the hospital, said, "We packed [patients] in every vehicle possible." She added, "One of the doctors [who] eventually escaped had to finish a surgery and get that patient out, too."
According to Jolly, it took only about 20 minutes to empty the hospital, a speedy evacuation that she credited to the hospital's emphasis on fire drills.
As soon as the patients were successfully evacuated, hospital staff sought to leave, battling their way through traffic gridlock as flames approached.
Then, things got much worse: Jolly's car was rear-ended and fell into a ravine.
'My shoes were melting': A nurse escapes just in time
Jolly abandoned her car, and she started running. "Flames were right on the side of my car," she said, "and I thought, 'I'm going to die here or die trying.'"
Jolly tried to get into Davis' car, which was directly ahead of her—but the door handles were melted shut.
With her clothing on fire, Jolly ran. "I'm breathing in the hottest air I've ever been in," she said. "My throat is bloodied, I'm about to hit the ground but the bottom of my shoes were melting. I put hand out in front of me and prayed to God, 'Please, don't let me die like this.'"
Finally, she reached a fire truck, which let her in.
A bulldozer cleared a path ahead—and rather than evacuating, the truck returned to the hospital, where dozens of area residents had fled in hopes of finding a refuge amid the flames.
Back at the hospital
After returning to the hospital, medical staff, including Davis and Jolly, set up a makeshift triage and treated patients as firefighters put out flames.
"There were maybe 50 patients that weren't admitted but came because they had no other place to go," Davis said.
Finally, when the hospital's roof caught ablaze, firefighters told staff they had to leave again. "When we got everyone evacuated, Nichole and I got in a doctor's car, and we drove," Davis said.
"It was thick smoke where we had to look at the stripe on the road to make it through, and there was a downed power line we had to drive over," she added. "And then the air opened up."
A hospital spokesperson said patients were evacuated safely and that the hospital was damaged but not destroyed. According to the spokesperson, the hospital's lower level was damaged but its upper level is still standing. "[W]e have a long way to go and are undergoing a thorough assessment to understand the full extent of the damage," the spokesperson said.
Davis and Jolly lost their homes, but even so, they called their survival a miracle.
What can you do to protect yourself from a wildfire?
As the wildfires continue to rage, Bruce Lee, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, offered frank advice to help people protect themselves during a fire: "Naturally, if you are in potential path of a wildfire, you should leave."
For a smoother evacuation, Lee said, "plan your route ahead of time." And when you're leaving, "wear the right clothing and footwear to protect yourself against anything hot."
Before you leave, if time allows, "get rid of anything that may easily burn," such as firewood or fuel, and turn off "all fuel lines," Lee said. To "slow the fire," Lee advised, "[f]ill large containers such as your bathtub, swimming pool, and hot tub with water."
Lee warned, "Do not try to outrun a fire roaring towards you." You might be fast, but "you just aren't fast enough." Instead, according to Lee, "The key is to stay low and get yourself wet." That entails immersing yourself in a body of water, or if that's not possible, covering yourself with something wet, such as a wet blanket or soil.
Lee said that a wildfire can be a threat "[e]ven if you are far, far away." He noted, "It can bother and even harm you even if you can't smell anything. So don't rely solely on your nose." Use alert services and resources such as AirNow.gov to determine air quality and possible threats.
After a wildfire, "be careful" during clean-up, Lee said. "Protect your mouth and nose (e.g., wear a respirator) as the ash includes particulate matter and may even have toxic materials."Lee concluded, "Wildfires are large scale health risks that may have many long term consequences" (Rosenblatt, NBC News, 11/11; Jones Sanborn, Healthcare Finance News, 11/9; AP/Fox 2; 11/9; Paavola, Becker's Hospital Review, 11/9; CBS 5, 11/8; Stelloh, NBC News, 11/11; Lee, Forbes, 11/10).
Members ask: How can our hospital prepare for disasters?
Hospitals must be prepared for myriad disasters that can stress health care systems to the breaking point and disrupt delivery of vital health care services.
Advisory Board has compiled step-by-step procedures for various threats your facility may encounter—though we hope you'll never need to use them.