CHICO, Calif. — Just hours after Rachelle Sanders gave birth to a healthy baby boy via C-section at a hospital in Paradise, California, she had to prepare for a harrowing choice.
Amid the November 8 evacuation from the Camp Fire, she was placed in a wheelchair and rushed to a car driven by a hospital employee named David. They attempted to flee, but the flames were flanking and sometimes in the middle of the road, and her surgery left her unable to run or even walk if the fire overtook the car.
She and David were strangers, yes, but she still made a dramatic request, should they be trapped by the flames.
“I said I want you to take the baby and run,” Sanders said.
Sanders, speaking to CNN from Chico on Monday, said that it never did come to that point. She, David and baby Lincoln ended up driving the 20 miles to safety in about nine hours on the road.
“I thought I wasn’t going to make it, for sure. I wasn’t sure any of us were going to make it. It was very, very terrifying.”
Sanders’ story is just one of the many harrowing journeys for people across Butte County, where the Camp Fire rapidly engulfed the town of Paradise, leaving more than 77 people dead and hundreds unaccounted for. Adventist Health said its hospital, Adventist Health Feather River, will likely not be back in operation for many months.
Sanders said that the combination of fire and wind created what looked like a “windstorm of fire,” and she heard explosions of propane tanks and witnessed flames across the road many times on their evacuation.
They were forced to turn around several times when the fire cut off their route. During one retreat, they drove past her home — or where her home used to be. Now, there was just a chimney. Sanders, her husband and their three children are now left homeless.
“It was like it never existed, except for the fireplace,” she said.
Because it was so soon after her surgery, she had intravenous lines still in. David, a hospital staffer with no medical background, hung it on the rear-view mirror and was able to get it dripping again.
After hours of turnarounds, gridlock and prayers, they eventually made it to another hospital in a different city. Sanders learned that David and his wife were safe — but she never did learn much else about his family.
“Never have I had a Thanksgiving come where I have had so little and felt more thankful and blessed,” she said.