A Personal And Harrowing Account Of How The Camp Fire Devastated Paradise

Adventist Health Feather River hospital.
Red skies illuminate Adventist Health Feather River hospital on Nov. 8, 2018. Photo courtesy of Paul Weingartner

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BY PAUL WEINGARTNER

NOTE: The Camp Fire tore through Paradise, Calif., the morning of Nov. 8, 2018. At least 48 people have been confirmed killed at the time of publication, with more still missing. What follows is a personal account of Paul Weingartner, formerly of Moscow, Idaho, who is a nurse at Adventist Health Feather River in Paradise. Some details may be disturbing.

I was at work in the emergency department at Adventist Health Feather River hospital on the morning of the fire. Those of us who arrived at 6:45 a.m. to start our shift noticed the initial plume of dark smoke rising over Feather River canyon. Due to extremely dry conditions and high winds, and the fact that the hospital sits on the edge of the canyon, we immediately activated our Incident Command Center and prepared for an evacuation of the hospital.

All patients had to come through the emergency department: patients in wheelchairs awaiting scheduled surgeries, an intubated ICU patient and other critical patients in hospital beds, a brand new mother after a cesarean birth, and several newborns from the Birthplace Center, etc. Evacuation was completed via private vehicle, ambulance, and law enforcement vehicle by about 8:30 a.m. as the fire glowed and thick black smoke began to hover over the hospital. At 8:45, officials strongly recommended that hospital employees evacuate as well.

By this time, Feather Canyon clinic, the “old” hospital between the canyon and the new hospital, was on fire, as were several other outbuildings — education, human resources, physical plant — and the open grass areas around the helipad and adjacent to the parking lot were burning.

Emergency crew coming to assist in the evacuation.

Emergency crews coming to assist in the evacuation. Photo courtesy of Paul Weingartner

Embers the sizes of small stones were dropping on the cars lined up to leave the parking lot.

By the time I pulled out, the road we were instructed to take away from the hospital was impassable due to the high traffic volume of the general evacuation, and I was abruptly re-routed in the opposite direction. This put me on my normal route away from the hospital and was mostly free of traffic. I felt relatively safe.

This was a short-lived feeling, however. The crossroad that would take me over to the main highway back to Chico is a road that dips down into a deep gully. The land and homes on the passenger side of the car were already burning, and the smoke had created the profound darkness of night. As I got to the bottom of the ravine, I was in a line of cars that slowed to a near standstill.

Soon the fire jumped the road, and I found myself at a standstill in between 60 to 70-foot-high evergreens in flames. Embers and debris were dropping everywhere, and the smoke and heat made it difficult to breath. The wind sounded like the exhaust of a jet engine, and the car was buffeted steadily. Drivers began to move slowly from roadside to roadside to avoid flare ups, and we began using both lanes, fearing (I presume) that we would not be able to get out of the gully before it was completely engulfed.

I began to realize that I might not make it out, that I would be burned in my car or, my worst fear, suffocated. I had no cell service in the ravine, and I couldn’t call my family to say goodbye.

As these thoughts were coming into my head, and I was trying to resign myself to a stupid death, the side door burst open and a guy jumped into the passenger seat. I recognized him immediately as Josh, a hospital employee. He quickly explained that his car, several vehicles behind mine, had stalled and caught fire and he had to abandon it. It was too hot to run in that heat.

We made our way, inch by inch, up the road out of the ravine. A driver in a VW Bug in front of us kept stalling and finally got out of her car and into a truck next to her.

Then she got out, reached back into her car, and pulled out a small dog. She placed the dog in the truck, then reached again into her car and pulled out another small dog. At this time