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 A Story of Survival

Amid a killer California fire, Heritage Paradise heroes lead residents to safety.

 

Paradise, Calif., was anything but its name on Nov. 8 when an intense forest fire brought tragedy to the town of 26,000 nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills above the Sacramento Valley.

In what survivors called an ungodly combination of heat, smoke, and speed, the Camp Fire inferno killed dozens and torched most anything in its path. Where churches, gas stations, homes, and schools once stood is now charred earth in most areas of town. Not much was spared.

There was also a skilled nursing facility (SNF) in town, Heritage Paradise. It is no longer there.

This is the story of how the consequences of a disaster played out in real time for this one SNF, and how fast-acting and determined administrators, staff, and volunteers drove residents to safety under extreme risk of peril. Even if they could not save their building, they saved their charges.

A Day Like No Other

Jessica Johnson was the administrator of the 99-bed facility, which had 66 residents to care for on the day the fire struck. One of the first things noticed when talking to Johnson is how she stumbles over the past tense in her title these days, still shocked to be a “was” when it comes to her job.

She tells Provider that the day in question started with worry right off the bat. Locals were tracking the progress of a forest fire that although nearby seemed far enough away to keep to normal routines.

Warning Signs

For Johnson, this meant running her two young daughters to daycare and school before arriving at the nursing center. But even as she started off that morning, she made a decision to keep her children close and skip the drop-offs.

“I lived in Paradise and was able to see a huge cloud of smoke that was also raining ashes already, and that was about 7:30 to 7:45 a.m. at that point,” she says. “I kind of had an uneasy feeling, and I called Sonya [Meyer, corporate executive administrator for Heritage] and said, ‘Have you gone outside yet? It is raining ashes already. I am a little nervous.’”

Johnson also had fielded a call from the facility saying the Internet was down, which she thought was a “weird coincidence.”

The uneasy feeling about what lay ahead only intensified as she drove the short distance to work through a thick fog of smoke. When she arrived, Johnson told the staff—who were worried about the fire as well—to start packing for the residents, “getting some outfits together just in case because it did not look great.”

Johnson started getting calls from other staff members who were driving toward the facility and not at work yet, expressing concerns about the smoke as well. These are all people experienced in the ways of forest fires, which strike this part of California often enough.

“The fire was about two canyons over, which is not unusual for Paradise, and normally it will be out before it hits us,” she says.

Keeping Positive

Meyer joins in the retelling of that day by emphasizing that everyone was trying to stay calm and positive even as the trickle of negative news on the path of the fire increased by the minute.

“I got a call a few minutes after 8 a.m. saying that someone had witnessed the fire go over the canyon and hop the canyon, and it was spreading quickly and the smoke outside was getting worse,” she says.

In reaction, Johnson called the nearby Windsor Chico Creek Care and Rehab in Chico where they have 184 skilled nursing beds some 20 miles from Paradise.

“I knew they would have room for our residents. So, I called them to see if they could just reserve every single room for me. I was told minutes after that other hospitals and skilled nursing centers had called but I had already reserved the beds,” she says.

Joe MiceliJohnson also asked for the SNFs’ vans and made a separate call to Merit Medi-Trans, whose owner Joe Miceli agreed to offer assistance in moving residents. Tommy Davis from Windsor Chico Creek and Steve Brace and Duanne Barr of another helpful provider, The Terraces Assisted Living, were the other van drivers that day.

No Time to Wait

The point of all these calls was to give Heritage Paradise the option to get out as quickly as possible, and luckily they acted because shortly after 8 a.m., authorities issued the evacuation order for Paradise.

“The fire was on the other side of Paradise at that point but it was moving extremely quickly,” Meyer says. “And then at a certain point, I don’t know what time, we made the call to get the residents [who were not in need of Hoyer lifts] in personal vehicles because we were not going to be able to wait.”

Both Johnson and Meyer said the most striking feature of the evacuation and all that it entailed was the race to get ahead of what was an incredibly fast-moving fire. “We had a Paradise resident who was coming down the Skyway [the only road connecting the town to the evacuation route], and he stopped at our driveway and told us that the fire was about 150 yards up the street. ‘You can wait no longer, you have to go,’ he said,” Meyer recalls.

All of the residents, minus seven who needed lifts, were put into staff vehicles. The wait for the vans was
just getting started for the others, but a larger problem was that there was really no way to evacuate the area entirely because the Skyway was more parking lot than road at this juncture.

“The Skyway was not moving at all,” Meyer says. “When I looked up there were probably four of our cars in our driveway. They were not even able to merge into the traffic yet because it was not even moving.”:##:

Encircled by the Blaze

Meyer remembered thinking about the vans and how they could never get through, given that both lanes of the Skyway were going out of town, whereas the vans would be coming toward town and the facility. It was at this point that another level of fear took over. “We felt we were kind of trapped at this point, I didn’t know what we were going to do,” Johnson says. Calls were made to local authorities describing their situation but only messages could be left.

The immediacy of the pending disaster also took hold, especially when the remaining nine facility staff could feel the water spray on their faces from nearby helicopters trying to put out the fire, she says.

Sonya and JessicaAmid the feeling of being encircled by the blaze, Johnson and Meyer made decisions on who would stay with the seven residents, allowing staff to get to their own families in some cases. In other cases staff volunteered to stay not only to get the last residents out but also to save the building.

“Our two maintenance guys were on our roof with hoses. They thought they could defend it, and said they have to stay,” Meyer says. “I was like, this is not a good option.” The fire was burning stronger, and the options became one choice really, which was to get out if at all possible.

Parting the Waters

It was in these scary moments when the traffic was just starting to move a bit, but there were still no signs of the vans to get the Hoyer lift residents out that something amazing happened. The vans appeared, as if by magic, to rescue what had been a smooth evacuation.

“I have to say, I am not a religious person but I said it was like Moses parting the waters,” Meyer says. “Some of our staff members that were already in the evacuation were on the road going the opposite direction out of town and said it was like salmon swimming upstream.”

It turns out the vans did make it through against the two lanes of traffic. “While we all did our jobs with staying and getting the patients out, they [van drivers] did more than their job because they drove vans to get our people out. I don’t know what we would have done, we had no real options,” she says, leaving the thought of the worst-case scenario hanging.

The story of how Johnson and Meyer and all of their staff and residents survived of course did not end with the vans. There were worried, tense, emotional moments on the slow drive out of Paradise, including Johnson running a mile and a half on the Skyway to try and connect with her small children who were in a separate vehicle.

All of these survival stories turned out all right. No one died that day from the Heritage Paradise family. All the residents remain where they were taken and are in good care, Meyer says. But, there is no Paradise anymore. Both Johnson and Meyer lost their homes, as did more than 70 other staff members. There are no jobs. People are just now being allowed to go back to a small part of town and check on where they once lived. The future is uncertain, but at least there is one.

A Great Job

While a place called Paradise is no longer standing, it is still very much alive as is the gratitude of the people who matter most.

“I had one of the Hoyer residents, she liked leaned over and patted me on the back and said, ‘you guys are doing a great job.’ So, they did really, really well. No panic. I was surprised at how calm they were,” Johnson says.

Through the work of the California Association of Health Facilities, the state affiliate for the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living, there are ways to help those SNFs and their employees affected by the fires at www.cahf.org.
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