Jesee Ernest

Husband And Wife Injured By Camp Fire Remain In Hospital's Burn Unit

Jenna Lane
December 18, 2018 - 12:00 am
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This is part two of a four-part series by KCBS Radio reporter Jenna Lane about Suzie and Paul Ernest. Part one is available here.

The Camp Fire that incinerated the small city of Paradise was extinguished a few days after Thanksgiving, but the healing has only just begun. That is especially true for a couple who were badly burned when they were trapped in the fire's path.

The flames first engulfed Paradise on November 8. That day would turn out to be the busiest in more than a century at Enloe Medical Center in nearby Chico. 

The hospital treated hundreds who'd been choked by the heavy smoke, from patients with chronic lung disease to otherwise healthy individuals. Some people who needed care arrived in "vehicles that had been literally melted from the fire," said the medical center's CEO Mike Wiltermood. 

"When we first heard about a couple of deaths, we all thought that this was going to be in the thousands," said Wiltermood. "The fact that so many people made it out alive was the miracle of this."

But Paul and Suzie Ernest needed more care than what they could get in the local hospital. The couple had huddled behind a boulder as the flames rushed toward them. It unfortunately offered only minimal shelter. Suzie's shoes melted in the heat, leaving her feet blackened. The flames tore away Paul's flesh, leaving his shin bones exposed.

A neighbor, who fled with the Ernests on an all-terrain vehicle, avoided major burns and got the couple onto a fire truck.

Jessee Ernest

They were among 12 patients taken to the burn at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. One died; eight have been released. A Cal Fire captain went home to his family after a few weeks. The Ernests are still there.

"My dad has full-thickness, third-degree burns covering 30 percent of him, on his legs, and on his hands and arms," Jessee Ernest said. "My mom, about 25 percent, about the same, a little less deep, still really bad. They're trying to get the skin grafts to take."

Ernest is the oldest of Paul and Suzie's three children, and dad to one of the many grandchildren they take care of every week.

Friends say Ernest has been at his parents' bedsides all along, showing them videos of the grandkids. He was there as nurses wheeled the couple's beds into one room so they could spend part of their 46th anniversary together. 

"They weren't able to get so close because there's a risk of infection," Ernest said. "It was hard for my mom. She is more alert and awake and my dad is just not as alert, and that was the first time she's seen him like that."

While he is sure his parents are on one of the best burn units in the country, he has not been able to get clear answers about their prospects for recovery.

"Nobody wants to say anything for sure. They're going to fully recover, or they're going to lose their legs, like -- you just have to see how it goes every day," said Ernest. "It's really up to their strength and their drive to recover."

Suzie is 66, Paul is 71. The nurses and their son have been giving them goals every day. 

"They've always been really strong, carried on after ailments and hardships," said Ernest, "but this one's the biggest they have ever faced and hopefully the biggest that they will ever face. I've been telling them I'm going to push them real hard."

Part three will be published on KCBSRadio.com on December 19.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Camp Fire survivors who remain in the UC Davis Medical Center burn unit.