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Paradise doctor recounts his harrowing journey through the fire

Paradise doctor recounts his harrowing journey through the fire

Picture of Theodore Muller
Courtesy photo
The remnants of the Paradise home of Dr. Theodore Muller after the Camp Fire.
(Photos via Theodore Muller)

While it has been over a month since the most destructive fire in California’s history destroyed the town of Paradise and badly damaged the hospital where I work, I’m still struggling to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy, and my own luck in surviving it.

I remember that morning vividly. It began when Dr. Reagan Bellinghausen, one of my fellow emergency department physicians at the hospital called me at 8:23 a.m. to tell me Feather River Hospital was being evacuated due to a fire. I am a deep sleeper and had worked late the previous day, so who knows when I would have woken up otherwise — possibly after my house was surrounded with flames. I was not overly alarmed at first, as the hospital had previously been evacuated due to fire. I got up, brushed my teeth, figured I should skip a shower, and headed out to my car.

It was pretty dark out from the smoke and no sunlight got through, creating an eerie feeling. As I headed to the hospital, about a mile away from my home, to try to help, I saw cars backed up going the opposite direction, trying to leave town. About half a mile from the hospital, traffic stopped. I considered pulling over and walking the rest of the way but decided not to. I would later realize that was a good decision as most of the cars parked on the side of the road that I passed were later engulfed by fire. As a sheriff's car approached I rolled down the window and told him I was trying to get to the hospital to help out. He told me to turn around — the hospital was on fire. I would later learn the hospital had been mostly evacuated by this point.

So I turned around and entered the traffic trying to leave town. We were moving very slowly, barely 10 feet a minute. The fire was catching up with us. I looked over to my right and noticed there was a house on fire there now. Then a bush nearby caught fire. Then the brush on the side of the road caught fire, four feet from my car. Then every house I went by was on fire. At that point I started to get worried. It felt relatively safe on the road. There were no sheets of flame rolling past or infernos next to me, but it felt like a falling tree or a car catching fire in front of me would force me to leave the car and the road.

I soon passed a burned out ambulance. Later I would hear that the pine needles at the bottom of the windshield caught fire, catching the whole ambulance on fire. They had a number of patients in the back at the time. The paramedics tried to shelter the patients in a nearby garage but shortly had to flee. They were nearly burned alive.

I kept driving, I passed a car on fire on the side of the road. I called my wife and let her know that I thought I was going to be OK, but that if I wasn't, I loved her very much and that I wanted her to tell the kids how much I loved them too. We talked until we lost our connection. For the next five hours my wife would not know if I was alive or dead.

Soon after a sheriff came walking down the middle of the road and gave us a choice: We could pull over into a nearby parking lot to shelter in place or continue down the road. He said it was probably safer to get off the road. So a number of us pulled into the parking lot of a church that had already been destroyed by fire.

There I ran into one of our hospital’s pastors, Brad Brown. Earlier that morning, he had evacuated three patients, two from the ICU and one hospice patient. The hospice patient was lying on a pile of pillows in the back of Brad’s car, moaning quietly. I evaluated each of them and put a blanket over the hospice patient. The other two ICU patients were almost out of oxygen and there was little I could do. I gave Brad some instructions on caring for them and went around the parking lot to check on other people seeking refuge there.

Not long after, a sheriff arrived and told us to go to a Kmart parking lot nearby. Part of the road that led there was engulfed in flames, ash and heavy smoke. It felt like we were driving through Dante's “Inferno.” I couldn’t believe the sheriff had told us to drive through this area. But traffic was moving and the caravan of cars all sped through as fast as possible.

When we made it to the Kmart lot, I joined a phlebotomist and nurse from the hospital and started evaluating a dozen or so people. The pastor was there too and he started arranging medical evacuations with the sheriff stationed at our site. The sheriff called in a small Cal Fire truck and they would make up a small caravan that led patients to safety. A man badly burned by the fire walked into the parking lot and we got him out via ambulance. We even cared for a badly burned cat. Meanwhile, some emergency personnel brought us Gatorade and water.

Shortly after that we were allowed to leave the parking lot and finally escape Paradise. The fire stretched for miles and miles along the length of Clark Road, the main artery leading out of Paradise. I just couldn't believe how many downtown businesses were destroyed as I passed through. The devastation was unbelievable. After about two hours in the middle of the fire and then six hours in parking lots, I made it out. 

The selfie the author sent to his wife after she asked to see his face after escaping the fire. (Photo by Theodore Muller)

The next day I was talking with one of our nurses, Birgitte Gunderson, and she told me about a "pop up" shelter at the East Avenue Church in Chico where she was volunteering. For the next five days my wife, who is a nurse, and I went there to help.

I wanted to stay in Chico and help but I had to get back home to Lincoln, California and start putting the pieces of our shattered life back together. I was one of the lucky ones. We know now how many lost their lives in the fire. Although we lost our second home in Paradise, our main residence was many miles away. 

Although a portion of the hospital was not burned, the portion unscathed by flames suffered water damage from sprinklers. It seems unlikely at this point that the hospital will reopen anytime soon, and it might not ever reopen. With the obliteration of Paradise, there is no longer a community for the hospital to serve. I have picked up part time work at a number of nearby hospitals and feel grateful for that.

Slowly but surely my family and I are getting back on our feet.

***

Correction: An earlier version of this post included a reference to an intubated patient who perished in the fire after the ambulance carrying the patient caught fire. Dr. Muller has since learned all the patients in the ambulance survived.

Comments

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Ted, I can’t stop thinking about you and your family and how lucky you were. What a horrible tragedy.

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It was always a pleasure to work with you Dr. Muller. You know how to treat patients respectfully. I know they appreciated that. God Bless You and your Family.I
Best of luck.
Deby Turman
Phlebotomist at Feather River.

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Wow, Ted!
This article made me cry. I am so thankful for your safety, for your generous help, for the love you and Jen have for helping others and for God watching over you, your family and the others who were helping with this tragedy. Thank you for telling your story. Those of us that are far away, do not know feel the severity of this fire-but your stiry captures that! You are amazing!

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Thank you for writing this. Your dear wife is a loved and respected member of our little school and we were all with her during those five LONG hours. I cannot tell you how thankful we all are that your dear family is safe and together. Much love from all of us here at Placer Academy ❤️

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