Jessee Ernest

Patients Injured By Butte County Wildfire Were Tough To Find

Jenna Lane
December 19, 2018 - 8:37 am
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This is part three of KCBS Radio reporter Jenna Lane's four-part series on a married couple who were badly injured by the wildfire that destroyed Paradise, California. Parts one and two are also available.

SACRAMENTO — A couple from Paradise, badly burned as they and their neighbor tried to outrun the Camp Fire, were among 12 patients who filled the burn unit at UC Davis Medical Center.

For the first half of Dr. Tina Palmieri's 20-year career in the Sacramento hospital, it would have been hard to imagine seeing so many burns caused by wildfires.

"We had some wildfires, but not too many injuries," Palmieri said. "But as time has gone on, the wildfires seem to be getting bigger. More people. More buildings. More destruction is occurring."

The director of the Firefighters Burn Institute Regional Burn Center at UC Davis Medical Center, Palmieri likes to get her team working on a patient within half an hour of an injury. In the Camp Fire, they had to abandon that standard, waiting anywhere from six to 24 hours for burn victims to arrive. 

"That's because it's hard to find them. Then you have to get them out of the scene, and when people were evacuating, their cars stalled on the road, which created an even further backup for a lot of patient transports," Palmieri said. "So the first thing we noticed was that our ideal burn resuscitation was not going to happen because they just couldn't get here."

Jessee Ernest
Desperate, with flames sealing off their country lane surrounded by canyons, Travis Wright and his neighbors, Paul and Suzie Ernest, had ridden their quads about a mile off-road before the Camp Fire caught up with them. Wright escaped with minor burns and went for help. It took firefighters about an hour to reach the Ernests.

"When you get burned, you lose more than just your skin. You also lose a lot of the fluids in your body," Palmieri said. "The longer you wait to replace those fluids, the more complex your recovery. Even a difference of half an hour to an hour has been shown to impact mortality."

Once she did start seeing patients from the Camp Fire, Palmieri found that their burns were deep and their dehydration severe, from being trapped for so long in what amounted to an oven.

Compared to the wildfires that raged in the North Bay in 2017, Palmieri said that people injured in Butte County tended to be older. "As we get older, we're a little less mobile. It's harder to evade a fire," she said. 

Paul Ernest is 71 and his wife Suzie is 66. They crouched against a boulder as the flames washed over them. They survived with burns over about a third of their bodies, mostly their arms and legs, and have endured multiple surgeries at UC Davis Medical Center. 

"It's a matter of getting the skin grafts to take. It's a pretty fascinating process, but it's my parents, so it's distressful as well," said their son Jessee Ernest. He and his siblings have been able to visit their mom and dad, but the risk of infection has kept Paul and Suzie apart from each other and from their grandchildren. 

"When you get the skin graft, your donor skin that comes off your own body is also a wound. So now you have wound covering 60 percent of your body," Ernest said.

Most patients will be hospitalized at least one day for each percent of their body burned, according to Palmieri. 

Smoke inhalation, common in a wildfire, can double that. The Ernests have been hospitalized for six weeks. They've spent their 46th wedding anniversary and Thanksgiving in the hospital. Their family -- who also lost two homes in the Camp Fire -- is trying to figure out what to do about Christmas and the years to come.

"It is going to take a lot to get them functioning physically," their son Jessee said. "It's not just the skin that needs to be repaired. They're going to have to get out of the hospital at some point, and they need to walk again. They need to be able to be self-sufficient, ideally."

Palmieri tells patients it could take a year or two for them to return to what feels like their normal lives, and that "a lot depends on what area of your body is burned."

A burned thigh, for instance, poses fewer problems than scorched hands.

"If you burn your hands, eating is hard. Getting dressed is very difficult," said Palmieri. 

Jessee Ernest believes that his parents are motivated to get out of the hospital so they can again spend time with their grandchildren. 

"They love their grandkids so much," he said. 

But the place in Paradise where the Ernest kids have played for two generations now is, like Paul and Suzie, changed.

In the fourth part of the series, Jessee Ernest revisits the remnants of the family's home. It will be published on Dec. 20.