The names have been changed due to the sensitive nature of the topic and by request of the subject who told her story.
“I had a really bad feeling. The wind was blowing, the humidity was low, it hadn’t rained in six months, and I could smell the smoke,” said Catherine Taylor.
Camp Fire, the devastating wildfire that tore through Northern California in November of 2018 had just reached Feather River Hospital in Paradise, California. Catherine Taylor, a surgical technologist, was working at Feather River. She and her team were in the process of a caesarean section when the back of the hospital caught fire.
The fire began on November 8, 2018 and lasted seventeen days. Tens of thousands of firefighters were deployed from all over the country as nearly 160 thousand acres and 19 thousand buildings were engulfed in flames. By the time it was fully contained, 85 had died and and 249 were unaccounted for. To this day, three of those 249 are still missing. For Taylor and her family, who now live in Kalamazoo, their lives changed forever. Four months later, she is ready to tell her story:
“I was at the hospital getting ready for the C-Section and my husband was at home with our three-year-old son and his elderly father, who lived with us at that time. My older son was at school,” Catherine began.
After having “a feeling” all morning and getting news of the fire, she made a phone call.
“While they were getting the patient ready, I decided to go and call my husband,” Catherine continued. “I told him there was a fire in the canyon and I didn’t think he should take Jackson, our oldest son, to school. And he told me, ‘I just got home from dropping him off, I could go back and get him?’ I told him that I thought he should. After that, I went in and started the surgery. The policy at the hospital was to go forward with all scheduled surgeries as long as the power was on. Halfway through, we were told to move all patients to emergency rooms for evacuation, and my boss, thankfully, came in and told me I could leave. I ran out as fast as I could.”
By the time Catherine’s husband reached the school, the students were already evacuating. He had arrived just in time to pick up seven-year-old Jackson. They left the school only to realize the three main roads were gridlocked, and they were trapped.
“There was this mass rush of people trying to get out of town. At the same time there were all of these people trying to get back into the town to rescue people and animals and their belongings,” said Catherine. “Fire had overtaken cars, tires were exploding. My husband was stuck in traffic. The reason traffic wasn’t moving was because the people in front of them had died in their vehicles. I was calling and calling and I said, ‘You’ve got to do something, I don’t know what you’ve got to do but you’ve got to do something. You’ve got to get out of there or you’re gonna die.’”
And so, Catherine explained, he took action.
“He saw a police officer going the wrong way down the road, and thankfully, he drove through a ditch, through someone’s yard, turned around and followed the police officer. As soon as he did it, three other cars did the same thing. Because of that, he and my son were able to escape,” said Catherine
Catherine paused, took a breath, and added, “If they hadn’t, they might not have made it.”
She, meanwhile, was able to make it home and was quickly collecting her younger son Andrew, her father-in-law, their cats, and just a few important possessions and documents. They got into the car and took off. No one in Catherine’s family ever saw their home again.
Out of all the towns struck by the fire, Paradise was the most damaged by far, experiencing the greatest number of fatalities and destruction. Afterwards, 95 percent of it’s structures were gone, including the Taylor’s home and much of Feather River Hospital, which is now shut down. Since Camp Fire, Catherine hasn’t been back to Paradise.
Despite the trauma and loss they faced, Catherine’s family is moving forward. After bouncing around with friends and family for a short amount of time, they have found a new permanent residence in Kalamazoo. Why? There are actually quite a few reasons. Catherine grew up in Michigan, and only ten years prior to the devastating fire, she lived in Kalamazoo. She explains how having “a great support system here” that made the move back feel right. Also, a great job had conveniently opened up at Bronson Hospital, and of course, The Kalamazoo Promise.
“You just can’t beat it,” Catherine said with a smile. Her older son is already enrolled in Kalamazoo Public Schools, and her younger son will be too as soon as he’s old enough, meaning both of their college tuitions will be nearly fully paid for if they choose to stay in state.
“To have lived here once and to come back, it’s nice to see that Kalamazoo is thriving,” Catherine said. “All of my favorite old places are still here and doing well. That was one thing that was so encouraging. Thinking back on her decision she adds, “I told myself, ‘Catherine, this will be good,’ and it truly has been.”