Death Toll Rises To 76 In California Wildfire NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Sean Abrams, a Butte County paramedic and resident, about his experience fighting the Camp Fire.
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Death Toll Rises To 76 In California Wildfire

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Death Toll Rises To 76 In California Wildfire

Death Toll Rises To 76 In California Wildfire

Death Toll Rises To 76 In California Wildfire

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NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks with Sean Abrams, a Butte County paramedic and resident, about his experience fighting the Camp Fire.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We begin in California. California authorities have released grim new statistics. At least 76 people are now confirmed dead. And the number of missing has climbed to 1,276. And the fires continue to grow. Almost 13,000 structures have been destroyed so far. And 50,000 people have had to leave their homes, many now sleeping in makeshift shelters.

Risking their lives in the unfolding disaster are emergency service workers. Sean Abrams is a paramedic who is part of a team that helped evacuate five patients from the Adventist Health Feather River Hospital in Paradise, Calif., where the deadly Camp Fire hit hardest. He says by the time they reached the hospital, the situation was already incredibly dangerous. And it was about to get worse.

SEAN ABRAMS: When we got there, it was very smoky. You could see fire in Paradise. We were instructed to load as many patients as we could safely and then get out of there. So we did. I think, all in all, it took about 15 minutes, give or take. By the time we started leaving the ambulance bay, everything was just on fire around us - every home. Most cars were starting to catch at that point. People were abandoning their cars. It was just a very nasty scene.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It must've been terrifying.

ABRAMS: It was. It was, you know, trying to keep as calm as possible, had three patients in the back. My partner was telling me that the ambulance was trying to stall on us. It was obviously getting overheated. And the smoke was too much for it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're stuck in the middle of this fire. There's chaos everywhere. And your ambulance has stalled.

ABRAMS: Correct. And it was smoking from the engine compartment out. So we knew that it was overheated. And a large gust of fire wind came across, just threw a ton of ambers and flames on the ambulance. And the engine ignited. So we did see a driveway. It was an asphalt driveway. It was something that we could at least retreat to temporarily. So we did. We got the patients out. One was on a stretcher, which we took out. The paramedic from the other ambulance came in and carried one of the patients out. And I was left with our third patient.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you, at this point, think, oh, my goodness, I might die?

ABRAMS: Absolutely. Absolutely. Just knowing what I know about fire behavior and fuel types, we were in pretty much the worst-case scenario you could think of. It was four walls of fire. You're surrounded by it. There's no egress point to any north, south, east, west position. Everything was catching. And it just so happened that this one driveway had a house to its left that had not caught at that point. So that became our retreat point. We broke into the side gate. My partner broke into the garage. And we were able to place the patients in there. And that's where they remained.

We had to - we knew if the roof caught, the house was going to go. So it was covered in pine needles. We found a broom. We started brushing off pine needles, clearing gutters, got rid of everything in the yard that would be easily flammable. And we started making a defensible space. And we did that for the next hour and a half. During that time, everyone in our dispatch center, everyone that we knew, they were all trying to get to us. They knew that we were fighting...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For your lives.

ABRAMS: Yeah. Absolutely. And I don't think a whole lot of people thought we were going to, you know, get out of there. But amazingly enough, two search-and-rescue volunteers showed up. And they joined in the fight. And those guys were amazing. And we did that for about another 45 minutes with them, until, finally, engine 941 was able to make it to us. They never gave up. Those guys on 941, they never gave up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Sean, you eventually made it out. But I have to ask you, in the midst of all this, did you call your family? Did you sort of want to talk to someone? And what did you tell them?

ABRAMS: You know, unfortunately, we all had to make that phone call. I tried to call my wife a couple times and was not - my phone was not making phone calls. So I sent her a text. And I told her that, you know, tell the kids that I love them and that I loved her. And she sent me a text back. And she says, why are you saying this? Is everything OK? And I said no. Trapped in a house, ambulance caught fire and we're - might not make it out. I think I said probably not going to make it out. And that's the last thing I said to her because we couldn't - we had no more phone contact.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I can't even imagine. Can I ask you what it was like when you did see them again? They must have been so happy.

ABRAMS: It was amazing. We all got in one bed. And we just cuddled and held each other a little tighter. And there were a lot of I love you's. And my son is 5. So, you know, he's picking up more than he probably should have, obviously - crosstalk. Over the next few days, he would just not want me to go to work. Didn't want daddy to die. Didn't want daddy to burn. And then my wife probably will never forgive me for putting her in that position. But she knows that, you know, part of the nature of the job is, at times, we do put ourselves in positions that our safety is, at times, put at risk. So...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You risked your life for these patients. And as we know, these fires are continuing. There's many people that are missing. What are your worries right now?

ABRAMS: I'm not - I haven't been reliving our event in my mind. I am consumed in thought with everyone else, everyone that's been affected by this - all of my friends, all of my colleagues, the people I don't know, the people that are in shelters right now, you know, the people that lost their lives. It's just - it's unreal. You don't ever think that this could happen to your community. And it's just - it's happening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you been out again?

ABRAMS: I did. I worked the next three days. I was on - that was my first of four days. So I worked Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And it's horrible. The destruction that this fire has left behind is horrible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I want to thank you for everything that you've done. And I know that anyone listening to this will feel exactly the same. Sean Abrams is a paramedic from Butte County. Thanks again. And be safe.

ABRAMS: Thank you very much.

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