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Nurses Fleeing Fast-Moving Camp Fire Scramble To Save Patients — And Themselves

Posted at 9:13 PM, Nov 11, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-11 21:13:16-05

PARADISE, Ca. (NBC NEWS) – As smoke from California’s Camp Fire filled the cab of her car, Nichole Jolly called her husband for what she thought would be the last phone call of her life.

“I said, ‘I think I’m going to die. Tell the kids I love them. I’m not gonna make it home,'” Jolly, 34, a surgical nurse at Adventist Health Feather River Hospital, told NBC News on Sunday.

Jolly, a mother of three, was in the process of evacuating the hospital in Paradise, California, on Thursday, when flames from the Camp Fire began swallowing trees in the parking lot. In recent days, the fire killed at least 23 in Northern California, as two wildfires continue to rage outside of Los Angeles to the south.

Staff at Adventist Health Feather River Hospital arrived at work on Thursday morning unaware that flames were creeping toward the hospital, Jolly said. At approximately 7:30 a.m. PT (10:30 a.m. ET), the hospital was alerted that the Camp Fire was closing in. Moments later, flames jumped a canyon separating the hospital from the fire, and the medical staff were ordered to get patients out of the building and then flee themselves.

“We packed them in every vehicle possible,” said Karen Davis, 67, a surgical nurse, who works at the hospital. “Newborn babies and there’s a lot of elderly in our community. One of the doctors that eventually escaped had to finish a surgery and get that patient out, too.”

Image: Nichole Jolly
Nichole Jolly is shown in Chico, California on Nov. 9, 2018. Jolly evacuated Feather River Hospital in Paradise twice after she was driven back the first time when her vehicle, and her pants, caught fire from the Home Camp wildfire.Don Thompson / AP

Jolly said it took about 20 minutes to clear the hospital out. She attributes the speedy evacuation to the hospital’s emphasis on fire drills.

Once the patients were on their way, hospital staff, including Jolly and Davis, jumped in their respective cars and tried to flee, only to be met with gridlock traffic as the flames closed in.

Jolly was driving just behind Davis, when she was rear-ended and her car pushed into a ravine. The car was stuck and filling with dense, black smoke. Jolly was on the phone with her husband, who told her to run.

“Flames were right on the side of my car, and I thought, ‘I’m going to die here or die trying,'” she said.

At first, Jolly tried to get into Davis’ vehicle, but the plastic handles on Davis’ truck had melted. Jolly banged on the window, but heard no response and couldn’t see through the thick smoke.

Then, her pant leg caught on fire, forcing her to run to another car. When that car began to fill with smoke, Jolly decided her only remaining option was to run.

“I’m breathing in the hottest air I’ve ever been in. My throat is bloodied, I’m about to hit the ground but the bottom of my shoes were melting. I put hand out in front of me and prayed to God, ‘Please, don’t let me die like this,'” Jolly said, adding that as she prayed, she reached a fire truck, where firefighters were able to extinguish her smoldering pant leg, before pulling her inside.

Jolly said the firetruck appeared to be melting, and the firefighters warned: “Brace yourself. We might not make it.”

The back of Adventist Health Feather River Hospital in Paradise, California, burns as it is overtaken by the Camp Fire.
The back of Adventist Health Feather River Hospital in Paradise, California, burns as it is overtaken by the Camp Fire.Courtesy Nichole Jolly

“They said, ‘We need air support,’ and dispatch said, ‘That’s impossible. We can’t get that to you,'” Jolly said, adding that she was hysterical after believing she had left Davis to die and that she herself was still unlikely to escape.

“My kids thought I was dead. My husband had to tell my kids he thought I wasn’t going to come home,” Jolly said as her voice caught in her throat. “It was heartbreaking.”

She said a bulldozer eventually pulled up beside the firetruck and cleared a path so the truck could return to Adventist Health Feather River Hospital.

There, hospital staff had set up a makeshift triage in a wide expanse of the parking lot, which would later be moved to a helicopter pad that had already been burned. Neighbors had begun arriving, some on foot, unable to evacuate and believing the hospital to be the only point of safety they’d be able to reach.

Davis had already made it back to the hospital, after getting in a car with a case worker from the hospital. There, she and Jolly were reunited.

Image: Adventist Health Feather River Hospital
A tree in the parking lot of Adventist Health Feather River Hospital in Paradise, California, is engulfed by flames as the Camp Fire creeps toward the hospital.Courtesy Nichole Jolly.

“All of a sudden, Nichole turns around and started crying, and I said, ‘I thought you were dead,’ and she said, ‘I thought you were dead,'” Davis recalled.

Davis said the pair were inseparable after that moment, but continued to treat patients together.

“There were maybe 50 patients that weren’t admitted but came because they had no other place to go,” Davis said. “And there were about five or six dogs so we filled bedpans with water for the dogs.”

While Jolly, Davis and other medical staff treated patients, firefighters worked to extinguish the flames around them. Eventually, firefighters told staff they could no longer stay at the hospital after its roof caught fire, and those remaining at the hospital were forced to try the now-empty roads again to get to safety.

“When we got everyone evacuated, Nichole and I got in a doctor’s car, and we drove. … It was thick smoke where we had to look at the stripe on the road to make it through, and there was a downed power line we had to drive over … and then the air opened up,” Davis said.

Davis and Jolly later made it to Chico, California. Jolly was still there on Sunday, staying at a friend’s home. Davis said she has since made it to Sacramento where she is staying with family.

“Nichole and I, we stuck together and people go, ‘You’re a hero,’ but when we got back to hospital after losing our vehicles, we just kicked into that mode. It wasn’t anything heroic, it was just, we have to do this we’ve got to do that,” Davis said.

Both said they lost their homes and cars to the Camp Fire. They said a significant portion of the hospital was destroyed by the fire, too. But both called their survival a miracle.

“It’s just its stuff,” Davis said. “And I had too much stuff.”