I got the alert on my cellphone at 1:51 a.m the morning of Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. “Please come to the ED if you are available to help with the surge from fire victims and evacuees.”
My first thoughts: “What fire? What evacuees? Which ED is this?”
I was sound asleep, and it took a while to figure it out. I’d transferred from Kaiser Permanente (KP) Walnut Creek Medical Center in Walnut Creek, California, to KP Santa Rosa two years prior, and I still received the occasional alert from Walnut Creek.
I finally woke up enough to realize I could log onto the ED track board. KP Santa Rosa didn’t look unusually busy. I called my friend and colleague Josh Weil, MD, who was on the overnight shift.
“Josh, I got the page. Was that you guys? Do you need help?”
His voice was uncharacteristically strained.
“I think my house is gone. Claire and Sophie just evacuated. They literally ran through a wall of flames to get out.” Claire is his wife, and Sophie is his 15-year-old daughter.
“What do you need?” I asked. It was hard to take in; our entire emergency department just had an end-of-summer barbecue at their house a few weeks before.
“I don’t know what I need.”
“I’m coming in,” I said. I hung up the phone. This was real.
My partner, Fred, came in through the back door. I hadn’t even noticed he was gone. He’d been driving around our small neighborhood to see if he could locate a fire.
“I can’t see any fire, but the smoke is bad,” he said. I stepped outside. The wind was brisk, and the smell of smoke was pervasive. The Tubbs Fire, which had started around 9 p.m. the previous day, was raging.
“I have to go into work,” I told him. “Josh’s house is on fire. Claire and Sophie barely got out.” Fred’s face fell.
He turned on the TV. I threw on some scrubs. “There are fires everywhere,” he said.
Realizing I might be gone for a while and Fred might need to evacuate, I gathered some things for him to take just in case—papers, pictures, and cherished family items. My hands were shaking as I packed.
I’m an emergency physician, and I also spend half my work time in disaster planning and training for KP Northern California. I’ve worked both domestically and internationally in disaster response, including New York after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. I’d like to say all I had to do was grab my prepacked evacuation bag and head out the door in five minutes, but I didn’t. Although we have a home disaster kit with supplies, food, and water for our family and an evacuation bag for our dog, I hadn’t compiled the important documents and family items I now found myself stuffing into boxes and bags.