As I lay awake, I realize I’m not alone as I read so many others post about not being able to sleep and how unreal what happened yesterday is… so many of my friends and family have lost their homes, jobs, animals and have family missing.
When I arrived at [F]eather [R]iver yesterday morning it was ‘my Friday.’ I have an orientee and was given a mom/baby-fresh c-sect, and an induction. I assessed them and noticed the orange glow outside… I walked outside with co-workers and watched ash fall like snow and a huge growing cloud of fire…was told it wasn’t super close to the hospital. I continued working.
Within an hour or less, I was going room to room telling moms and dads to get up, wrap their babies up and we had to go. No time to grab personal belongings… we raced towards the ER and lined up. The staff that had cars started filling them with patients. Ambulances, sheriff, and police lined up and helped doctors, nurses and all staff load patients from beds and wheelchairs into cars. I told my co-worker Chrissy to stay close to me. [W]e were scared but not for our lives yet.
We planned to go with our patients to Enloe Hospital and help there if needed. As the last of the patients were loaded, we hopped into an ambulance with a very critical patient, an awesome EMS staff and another nurse Chardonnay. We started moving forward as we watched flames around us, it only seemed like seconds, but I think we got about a mile when we heard the radio traffic that the ambulance in front of us was on fire. We turned down a road into a driveway and stopped and we were told we can’t go any further right now.
I looked around as fire surrounded us, transformers were blowing up and the winds were SOOO fierce! This is when I looked at Chrissy and realized we might not make it out alive. We all got out of the ambulance and moved patients to the garage of the only house not burning, laid them down and tried to reassure their scared faces, while hiding ours.
I wanted to run, just get out and run down the street and dodge flames and get to safety… but reality reminded me I am not faster than a fierce, fast blowing fire. Do I stay in the ambulance? Hide in the garage with my patients? I looked around and it just kept surrounding me growing bigger, I saw cars stuck in gridlock trying to leave, fire surrounding both sides of them. I felt so scared, hopeless, and desperate. I immediately thought of my kids, the man I love so much, my family. I lost it … I called them all and between sobs I said, How very much I loved them, how sorry I was for any way that I let them down or made mistakes and asked my oldest daughters to please make sure their younger siblings were taken care of and knew how much I loved them.
I desperately called my boyfriend, who is a police officer, my hero… my love. He had just got off working all night and I knew he wouldn’t answer, but I kept trying. I called one of my closest friends, Julene. I said my goodbye to her between desperate cries and begged her to go to my house and wake my boyfriend, so I could tell him goodbye, and beg him to help me. She did. He called me, and I couldn’t contain myself. Being a police officer and dealing with crisis he was calm and told me to breathe and that I wasn’t going to die. I told him over and over as I was surrounded by fire, ‘Babe there’s no way I’m going to survive this.’ He asked for my address and I looked at the mailbox and told him. He said, ‘I am leaving now I will come get you.’ I was slightly hopeful.
Then I called my mom, who was out of town, and not only said goodbye but shared how desperately scared I was. That I didn’t want to die, and like all moms have the right answers, asked her what to do? I could hear she was trying to calm me, but she knew by my voice and what she could understand as I was so panicked… that I was not exaggerating. She told me to just stay there, I really had no choice so again she was right. I overheard my coworker and other nurse calling their loved ones.
Then I saw the paramedic, EMT, and our pediatrician spraying the house, filling water buckets, and I got out and said, ‘What can I do?’ A firefighter said, ‘Clear all this brush so this house continues to keep us safe.’ Chrissy and I were clearing brush by handfuls. We found a broom, rake, planters, buckets, and didn’t stop. Sure, we had our breakdowns and felt hopeless and then our jobs and why we do what we do came back to reality.
WE need to save our patients and ourselves. If we were going to die today, we would at least do it protecting others and do everything we can to live and we did!
What seemed like forever was interrupted by being told, ‘To get our patients back into the ambulance and someone’s truck since the other ambulance burned.’ We were an AWESOME team of mostly strangers doing whatever we could, and we did phenomenal!
Our hope was shattered when we’re told we were going BACK to the hospital, not Chico, out of the fire. We got there, and staff was setting up chairs, gurneys, IV’s, water, snacks, warm blankets. Hospital administration, anesthesiologists, doctors, police officers, paramedics, sheriffs, fire personnel nurses, managers, and anyone present was running, triaging, making sure everyone had what they needed. Chrissy and I sat in a car with a new Mom who couldn’t walk yet post C-section. We put her baby skin to skin, checked his vitals and helped him breastfeed and gave another fresh C-section patient (whose baby went with daddy to Enloe) pain medication.
As the fire continued to grow, I did get fearful but not enough to stop what I was doing. As the fire grew closer and into the hospital, we were told to move everyone and the equipment to our helipad area. Again, everyone is rushing, running, pushing gurneys, wheelchairs, and we sat up everything again, and triaged patients again as we gave water and warm blankets and reassurance.
A short time later, we were told we would be escorted out of Paradise to local hospitals. Sheriff vans, police cars and ambulances loaded everyone up and we left not one person behind! I looked out the back window at the devastation, while I conversed with the sweetest 95-year-old woman. We watched the flames beside us, burnt cars in the road, power lines down, and fresh homes burning. It went on for miles. I honestly couldn’t believe I was alive and that I would see my family, kids, and boyfriend again. I called them and told them I made it. They were all crying before I even told them because they couldn’t reach me and thought I was gone.
We got to Oroville Hospital and I helped staff unload lots of patients and get them inside, then I saw the EMT and paramedic I spent hours with before, and we hugged so tightly. I sat with my elderly friend as she waited and watched for her husband. I held her hand and said, ‘I will never forget you, these moments, this ride to Oroville AWAY from the fire.’ She told me the same, thanked me, and said she has a diary and I was going to be in it today. I teared up, I will never forget her and there is a picture of me and her below, before I spent that ride with her, doing what I love…being a nurse, a friend, a hand to hold, or an ear to listen.
I will forever be changed by yesterday, as so many thousands of others are, but not by what was physically lost, but the reminder that life changes quickly. Today and [every day] I urge you to live with no regrets, do what makes you happy, make sure your loved ones know how much you love them and how much they mean to you and NEVER take one second for granted.
Thank you to my friends, family, and complete strangers who have reached out to me. People from states far away. I am beyond thankful for each of you and to be lying next to the man I love writing this. With a house of 16 adults, 4 kids, 8 animals and our family from Paradise who likely lost their homes, and the opportunity to be even more than I was before.
**This story was written by Tamara Ferguson, a Labor and Delivery Nurse at Feather River Hospital in California. Used with permission.