Eight years ago, in our January/February 2011 issue of NFPA Journal, we ran a feature story titled "Unthinkable," about the 2008 wildfire evacuation of Feather River Hospital in Paradise, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
That’s the same Paradise, California, that was obliterated earlier this month by the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. As of November 28, the death toll stood at 88, with more than 150 people still unaccounted for. More than 14,000 homes were destroyed, along with nearly 5,000 other buildings. Feather River Hospital was evacuated and sustained significant damage.
The Camp Fire was the nightmare scenario that Paradise and surrounding communities had managed to dodge for decades, including the fires in the summer of 2008 that prompted widespread evacuations and resulted in some property damage—though fire, for the most part, did not reach into the most densely settled residential areas. The streets may have been mostly deserted, but homes, schools, and businesses remained standing as surrounding fires turned the sky orange with smoke.
Melissa Barnard, an emergency room nurse and director of the Emergency Department at Feather River Hospital, wrote a gripping first-person account for NFPA Journal of her experiences during those days, including the evacuation of the hospital—the first time in its 58-year history that it had had to do so. “About a dozen hospital staffers—maintenance, lab workers, kitchen staff, and several of us manning the command center—remained in the building, along with scores of firefighters who were using the hospital as a base,” Barnard wrote of the hours following the evacuation. “We notified other hospitals and the county and state health departments that we were closed. My throat was sore from lack of sleep and the ever-present smoke. The guys from maintenance covered the hospital’s large sign with white plastic, and a smaller sign taped atop it read simply, ‘CLOSED.’ It was hard to comprehend that what we’d always considered unthinkable had just happened … The hallways were filled with smoke, and most of the lights were turned off. I went to the emergency department to sleep on a gurney, without much success.”
I haven’t been able to reach Barnard directly to find out whether she and her family are ok, and if their home is still standing, but another hospital staffer I spoke to this week assured me that she and her family are safe. What I know about the evacuation of the hospital is that it happened very fast as the Camp Fire bore down on them with remarkable speed. I also know that some of the earliest news reports of the fire included harrowing stories of hospital patients and staff narrowly avoiding death as they attempted to outrun or seek shelter from the flames and embers. Like the Tubbs Fire that overran Sonoma a year ago, the speed and ferocity of the Camp Fire presented residents of Butte County with a phenomenon few were prepared to face, despite all of the planning, preparation, and dress rehearsals like the fires that occurred a decade ago.
As we continue to work on updating the situation from Paradise and elsewhere in California, please give our story from 2011 a look—Barnard’s account offers a strangely prescient look at a hospital and a town on the brink, poised between life before the Camp Fire and life after.