A Nurse’s Story from California's Camp Fire Disaster
"How Can Gratitude Help You Through Hard Times?"
Just before Thanksgiving and in the wake of the most destructive wildfire in California history, the Camp Fire, we’d like to honor the heroes who put their lives on the line for others.
With permission from Tamara Ferguson, a nurse who worked at Feather River Hospital in Paradise, California, before it was destroyed by the flames, we share her report of what started as a normal day and ended in unimaginable tragedy. We want to thank Tamara, and so many others like her, who have worked to save lives through incredibly selfless, protective, and focused service during the most deadly fire in California history.
Here’s Tamara’s story, in her own words, of the day that saw two towns burned to the ground in 24 hours—and that changed the lives of so many . . .
As I lay awake and read so many others posts about not being able to sleep and how unreal what happened yesterday is, I realize I’m not alone. So many of my friends and family have lost their homes, jobs, and animals and have family missing.
When I arrived at Feather River Hospital yesterday morning, it was my “Friday.” I have an orientee and was given a fresh mom/baby c-section and an induction. As I assessed them, I noticed the orange glow outside. I walked out with coworkers and saw ash falling like snow and a huge growing cloud of fire. I was told it wasn’t super close to the hospital, and so I continued working.
But within an hour or less, I was going room to room telling moms and dads to get up and wrap up their babies. We had to go! No time to grab personal belongings. We raced toward the ER and lined up. Staff who had cars started filling them with patients. Ambulances, sheriff’s deputies, and police lined up and helped doctors, nurses, and staff load patients from beds and wheelchairs into cars. I told my coworker Chrissy to stay close to me.
We were scared, but not for our lives yet. We planned to go with our patients to Enloe Hospital in nearby Chico and help there if needed. Once the last of the patients were loaded, we hopped into an ambulance. With a very critical patient, an awesome EMS staff, and another nurse, Chardonnay, we started moving forward as we watched flames around us.
It only seemed like seconds had passed, but I think we had gone about a mile when we heard over the radio that the ambulance in front of us was on fire. We turned down a road into a driveway and stopped. We were told we couldn’t go any further right now. I looked around as fire surrounded us. Transformers were blowing up, and the winds were sooo fierce.
This is when I looked at Chrissy and realized we might not make it out alive.
We all got out of the ambulance and moved patients to the garage of the only nearby house that was not burning. We layed them down and tried to reassure their scared faces while hiding our own. I wanted to run—just get out and run down the street and dodge flames and get to safety. But reality reminded me that I am not faster than a fierce, fast-blowing fire.
Do I stay in the ambulance? Hide in the garage with my patients? I looked around. The fire just kept surrounding me, growing bigger. I saw cars stuck in gridlock trying to leave, fire surrounding both sides of them. I felt so scared, hopeless, and desperate.
I immediately thought of my kids and the man I love so much, my family, and I lost it. I called them all, and between sobs I told them how very much I loved them, how sorry I was if I had ever let them down or made mistakes. I asked my oldest daughters to please make sure their younger siblings were taken care of and that they too knew how much I loved them.
I desperately called my boyfriend, who is a police officer. My hero, my love, had just gotten off working all night, and so I knew he wouldn’t answer, but I kept trying. I called one of my closest friends, said my goodbye to her between desperate cries, and begged her to go to my house and wake my love so I could tell him goodbye and beg him to help me.
She did, and soon he called me. I couldn’t contain myself. Being a police officer and used to dealing with crises, he was calm. He told me to breathe and that I wasn’t going to die. Over and over, I said I was surrounded by fire: “Babe, there’s no way I’m going to survive this!” He asked for my address, and I looked at the mailbox and told him. “I’m leaving now. I will come get you,” he replied. I felt slightly hopeful.
Then I called my mom, who was out of town, to say goodbye. I shared how desperately scared I was, that I didn’t want to die, and, like all moms have the right answer, asked her what to do. I could hear she was trying to calm me, but I’m sure she knew by my voice—and what she could understand in my panicked pleas—that I was not exaggerating. She told me to just stay there, that I really had no choice. She was right.
As I looked around, I saw the paramedic, EMT, and pediatrician spraying the house, filling water buckets. I went out and asked, “What can I do?” A firefighter told me to clear brush so that the house would continue to keep us safe. Chrissy and I started clearing brush by handfuls. We found a broom, rake, planters, buckets, and didn’t stop. Sure, we had had our breakdown and felt hopeless. But then our jobs and why we do what we do came back into reality.
We need to save our patients and ourselves! If we’re going to die today, we will at least do it protecting others and doing everything we can to live. And so we did!
What seemed like forever was interrupted by being told to “get our patients back into the ambulance and someone’s truck.” We were an awesome team of mostly strangers doing whatever we could—and we did phenomenal! But our hope was shattered when we were told we’d be going back to our hospital, not to Chico and out of the fire.
When we got there, staff were setting up chairs, gurneys, IVs, water, snacks, warm blankets. Hospital administrators, anesthesiologists, doctors, police officers, paramedics, sheriffs, fire personnel, nurses, managers, and anyone present was running, triaging, making sure everyone had what they needed.
Chrissy and I sat in a car with a new mom who couldn’t walk yet post c-section. We put mom and baby skin to skin, checked his vitals, and helped him breastfeed. We gave another fresh c-sect (whose baby had escaped with daddy to Enloe) pain medication.
As the fire continued to grow around us, I did get fearful but never enough to stop what I was doing. As the fire grew closer and into the hospital, we were told to move everyone and the equipment to our helipad area. Again, everyone was rushing, running, pushing gurneys and wheelchairs. We set up everything again and triaged patients, giving them water and warm blankets and reassurance.
A short time later, we were told we would be escorted out of Paradise to local hospitals. Sheriff’s vans, police cars, and ambulances loaded everyone up and we left. Not one person behind. I looked out the back window at the devastation. While I conversed with the sweetest 95-year-old woman, we watched the flames beside us. Burnt cars in the road, power lines down, fresh homes burning—it went on for miles.
I honestly couldn’t believe I was still alive, that I would see my family, kids, and boyfriend again. I called them all. They were all crying before I even told them I had made it. Since they hadn’t been able to reach me, they thought I was gone.
We got to the Oroville hospital, and I helped staff unload lots of patients and get them inside. Then I saw the EMT and paramedic I had just spent hours with, and we hugged so tightly.
I sat for a while with my new elderly friend as she waited and watched for her husband. I held her hand and said, “I will never forget you, or these moments, or this ride to Oroville away from the fire.” She told me the same, thanked me, and said I was going to be in her diary entry for today. I teared up. I will never forget her—or doing what I love: being a nurse, a friend, a hand to hold, an ear to listen.
I will forever be changed by yesterday, as will so many thousands of others. Not by what was physically lost, but by the reminder that life changes quickly. Today, and everyday, I urge you to live with no regrets—to do what makes you happy, to make sure your loved ones know how much you love them and how much they mean to you, and to never take one second for granted.
Thank you to my friends, family, and complete strangers who have reached out to me, people from states far away, with so much love. I am beyond thankful for each of you. And to be lying next to the man I love while writing this, in a house full of 16 adults, 4 kids, 8 animals—our family from Paradise—who all likely lost their homes. And for the opportunity to be even more than I was before.
Whom can you thank today for being who they are? Whom can you tell today that they make a difference in your life? Whom can you tell today that you love them? How can gratitude help you through hard times?
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