PARADISE — The flames were racing toward Feather River Hospital just after 8 a.m. on the day the Camp Fire burned most of Paradise to the ground.
Staff at the hospital, which is owned by a sprawling nonprofit health care corporation affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, evacuated patients in their own vehicles as the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history scorched its way through the wooded ridgetop community on Nov. 8, 2018.
Firefighters battling the wind-whipped inferno, which burned across 240 square miles, made a stand at the hospital later in the day. While the hospital’s power plant and other portions burned, engine crews held the flames back from the main part of the building during a fierce fight that stretched past sundown, Paradise Fire Battalion Chief Rick Manson recalled.
Facing a wildfire for the ages, firefighters had to choose which parts of Paradise to save.
They chose the hospital.
“We worked really hard to ensure it didn’t burn down,” Manson said.
“That was the largest employer of the town,” he said. “Somebody may not have a home (after the fire) but they’d have a place to work and reestablish.”
Today, notices warn visitors the hospital is closed, and they must call 911 for medical aid.
Though heavily damaged on the inside, according to all accounts, the facility looks fairly intact to an untrained eye.
Residents and officials believed Adventist would reopen and bring jobs and vital health care to Paradise, a town popular with retirees, as the company began to recover on its losses and lawmakers cleared a pathway for it to rebuild.
But in mid-January, Adventist Health executives told town leaders they had no immediate plans to reopen a hospital in Paradise. The population simply does not support it, they said.
Average residents still don’t know the company has no plans to reopen Feather River.
The decision was made despite the fact the company recovered millions in insurance money for the fire damages. It also received an undisclosed settlement after filing a claim for nearly $1 billion from the Fire Victim Trust, the $13.5-billion fund established to make whole victims of wildfires sparked by the Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s equipment, like the Camp Fire.
It’s an issue that transcends Paradise.
Adventist’s actions reverberate beyond Butte County and into Coffey Park, Fountain Grove, Bennett Valley and other areas of Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties that burned in 2017.
Attorneys for wildfire victims in the North Bay and Paradise say the company’s legal maneuvering further slowed a process of compensating victims for losses that already felt excruciatingly long and piecemeal.
As a massive rebuilding effort brings life back to the ridge in Butte County, the abandoned hospital stands as a hulking reminder of all Paradise lost and has yet to regain.
Amy Kaur, who alongside her husband owns and operates a gas station and convenience store along Paradise’s main drag, gave birth to two sons in the hospital’s maternity ward. Well respected, the facility once drew expecting mothers from towns and cities on the valley floor.
“Whenever I pass by, I look over there and just think, ‘Oh, my God,’” she said of the ghostly campus. “I loved their staff, their doctors and everything.”
After the Paradise facility closed, pressure on surrounding hospitals grew, especially on emergency and women’s services. A recent medical emergency forced Kaur to drive to Chico — 30 minutes from Paradise — where she waited for six hours to be seen.
Waiting for compensation
While the Fire Victim Trust was established as part of PG&E’s 2019 bankruptcy filing in the wake of massive liabilities from the Camp Fire, the 2017 North Bay fires and other blazes, residents throughout Northern California, including Paradise, are still waiting to be made whole by the slow moving and underfunded trust.
Last year’s confidential Adventist settlement with the trust was likely nowhere close to the $1 billion the company claimed in bankruptcy court, but it was still a considerable sum, according to lawyers familiar with the process.