Back at the Hospital
It wasn’t long before elderly couples arrived in their cars. None of them were acutely sick. They were simply there to wait out the fire. At that time, I had absolutely no idea that Cal Fire was out back trying to save the hospital; I didn’t know for hours.
Looking back, I wonder if the couples knew something I didn’t. Apparent wisdom aside, they were frail. They would need masks, food, and water. The emergency department had all three. So I loaded up a wheelchair and brought it from car to car.
Over time, people trickled in. I made periodic rounds of the parking lot to pass out supplies. On my third or fourth round, I was surprised to find a group of ED nurses sitting in an SUV. I thought they’d escaped. Their cars had caught fire as they made their way through a ravine a few miles down the road. They were forced to turn back on foot.
We set up a makeshift shelter in front of the hospital. Evacuation routes must have intermittently opened up. People stopped by for masks and water before moving on. Their cars showed signs of fire damage: ash, melted brake lights, and blistered paint.
Ambulances returned with critical care patients, and medical personnel returned with medical-surgical patients. Paramedics informed us about a woman in labor headed our way, followed by a patient with 40 percent burns. We expanded the shelter into an outdoor emergency department.
By this time, the back of the hospital was on fire, and the halls were filled with a pungent smoke. Even still, people raided the hospital to get supplies. They returned with gurneys, IV fluids, and crash carts. If it looked useful, people grabbed it. We were very well set up except for a lack of electricity. It looked a lot like a field hospital.
All the while, propane tanks exploded in the distance as the fire got closer. The wind constantly threatened to send the hospital up in flames. And there was the smoke. Always the smoke.
The fire threatened our position, so we moved to the helipad, another large piece of asphalt. Most of the surrounding fuel had burned earlier in the day, so it was relatively safe. We’d be OK if we had to spend the night.
By mid-afternoon, an evacuation route was open. It was surrounded by fire on both sides, but everyone got out.