Nurse from London on front lines of deadly California wildfire

A nurse from London who helped remove patients from nursing homes in Paradise, Calif., as a deadly wildfire closed in said staff scrambled to put patients in their own vehicles and weren't sure they could escape.

A nurse from London who helped remove patients from nursing homes in Paradise, Calif., as a deadly wildfire closed in said staff scrambled to put patients in their own vehicles and weren’t sure they could escape - writes

“With this fire, it spread so rapidly that staff were having just to get people out, put them in their own cars and get them out of that town as fast as they could, without knowing exactly where they were going to take them,” Joanne Gilchrist said in a phone interview.

“It was extremely chaotic and terrifying for these people who didn’t know if they were going to make it out alive.”

Gilchrist, 48, who grew up in London, is a district manager with the California Department of Public Health in Chico, Calif., a city that’s only about 20 kilometres away from Paradise.

In July, she helped move hundreds of patients from health-care facilities in the northern California county of Shasta to safety during a fire known as the Carr fire.

But Gilchrist said the level of destruction and chaos caused by the Camp fire – now considered the deadliest wildfire in California’s history – is something she had never seen before.

“It’s beyond anything we have ever experienced.”

The massive wildfire burned for more than two weeks, killing dozens of people and destroying thousands of homes in northern California. Most of the town of Paradise was destroyed in day.

Gilchrist helped evacuate three nursing homes and a hospital in Paradise, all of which either burned down or were extensively damage by fire.

Thankfully no patients died during the evacuation, said Gilchrist, who graduated in nursing from the University of Toronto.

The operation was unlike any other she’s been involved in as a health administrator, she said.

“Normally during an evacuation, we assist health-care facilities with finding other facilities that may be able to accept patients, but normally we have more time to work with.”

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said Sunday the Camp fire has been finally contained.

At least 85 people were killed, and 249 are listed as unaccounted for. Crews continue to sift through debris and ash for human remains.

Gilchrist said efforts are turning now to providing help to the thousands of people who have been displaced.

“Our town of Chico is pretty small; we are only about 100,000 people, and we now have over 50,000 people who been evacuated and are looking for a place to live,” she said. “You have people staying with family and friends, people living out of hotels, living in tents. That’s the issue now. People can’t find a place to rent or to buy or to live.”

Gilchrist said one of the things impacting her the most is the toll the fire has taken on elderly people, many of whom have not been reunited with their families.

An animal lover, she also said it has been difficult to hear the stories of people who left their homes for the day before the fire hit and couldn’t get back to rescue their pets.

“There have been just so many people who have lost their homes knowing their animals were trapped inside, and thousands of animals who have been burned and are in shelters and are still trying to be reunited with their owners.”

Gilchrist said she is dealing first hand with the aftermath of the devastation, saying she has friends who lost their homes living with her.

“These have been very long and stressful days, from a work perspective and also a personal perspective,” she said. “All the heartbreak and devastation is difficult to deal with because it is just hard to know how to help people who have just lost everything.

“It’s going to be a long, long road before anything gets back to normal.”

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