Wildfire survivor and new mom Rachelle Sanders, 35, has a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Sanders and her family are planning to eat Thanksgiving dinner with three families who, like them, have lost their Paradise, Calif. homes in the Camp Fire, but feel lucky to have escaped with their lives.
In the days since the fire destroyed Paradise, Sanders has been working to help her family adjust to their new life. Her baby, Lincoln, was born on Nov. 7 — the day before the state’s deadliest wildfire started — and she feels that the stress of the disaster has made it more difficult to breastfeed him. However, Sanders says she feels overjoyed that the entire family has made it through the fire unharmed.
“I’ve never felt more blessed,” Sanders tells TIME.
On the day the fire started, Sanders says there were many moments when she was not sure if she or Lincoln would survive.
At around 7:30 a.m. that day, Sanders was in Feather River Hospital in Paradise recovering from Lincoln’s birth via C-section. Sanders, her husband, Chris, and the baby were resting when a nurse hurried into her room.
The hospital was evacuating to make way for a fire, the nurse told them.
At first, Sanders assumed the evacuation was just a precaution. She sent her husband back home, which was about “15 houses” away from the hospital, to help his elderly mother evacuate. The nurses loaded Sanders into a wheelchair, helped move her IV, and put Lincoln on a pillow on her lap.
“I had no idea about the severity of the fire and how rushed we were until we got down into the hospital bay,” Sanders says. “There was a long line of patients snaking from the door.”
As Sanders had just been through an operation, the hospital employees rushed her to the front of the line and put her inside a passenger car. The employees loaded up her IV, stuck some pillows on her lap and passed her the baby.
At first, all Sanders knew about her driver was that he was wearing a hospital name tag that said “David.”
For the next few hours, David drove Sanders and Lincoln around the burning town, searching for a way out of Paradise.
They had to keep turning around and stopping, Sanders says, because the roads were filled with abandoned cars — including some that were burning — and fire would occasionally sweep across the road. At times, the road was so dark with smoke that Sanders could only see headlights and the light of fires.
The car needed to drive back past Sanders’ house twice.
The first time was soon after the fire started. There was smoke and there were small fires around the home, but when they looped by three hours later, there was nothing left but a chimney, a garbage can and a mailbox.
At the worst moments, Sanders said she realized she needed to “make a deal” with David.
“We were at a dead stop for a long time. The fire was getting hotter, it was getting closer. There was fire on all sides of the car.”
She turned to David and made it clear that if he needs to abandon the car, “He’s going to take Lincoln and run. There’s no way I can get out of here, I can’t even walk.”
It never came to that. David eventually decided that there was no way out of Paradise, so he turned the car around and drove back to the hospital, which was miraculously spared by the fire.
A few hours later, David, Sanders and Lincoln drove down the mountain into Chico, where they reunited with family.
Sanders says she and her husband had time a few days later to tell David how much they appreciated his help: “I told him I could not be more grateful for what he did for my family.”
Sanders also says that she is thankful for all the people who are helping those who have lost everything, including people who have provided food, shelter and support for the community.
“I hope that the nation and the world can see our little town is full of hope and heroes.”
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