Chantilly, VA -- Halle Roebuck was born in Paradise, California just moments before a raging fire approached the local Adventist Health Feather River Hospital. Immediately after her birth, the hospital’s patients were ordered to evacuate. Heather Roebuck, Halle’s mom, later said she was told “Grab your baby, we’ve got to go.” Unable to move her lower extremities, Heather had to be transported by ambulance. Meanwhile, Heather’s husband took Halle in his car. The ambulance only made it a half mile before the vehicle caught fire due to the heavy flames driven by high winds.
“I said goodbye to my husband, and just told him to tell the kids I love them,” said Heather Roebuck.
Heather and several other Paradise residents were rescued by the brave actions of David Hawks, CAL FIRE Butte Unit Chief and Butte County Fire Chief. Chief Hawks is being recognized for his courageous effort with the 2019 IAFC Ben Franklin Award for Valor, sponsored by Motorola Solutions.
Named after the nation’s first fire chief, Benjamin Franklin, it is the most prestigious honor a department can receive from the IAFC. The award will be presented at Fire-Rescue International (FRI) the morning of Aug. 8 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta.
Providing Command to Save Lives
Having grown up in Paradise, Chief Hawks witnessed his community, his family and his friends face the deadliest fire since the 1918 Cloquet Fire in Minnesota and the Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin in 1871. Hawks quickly took action to help save lives during the Paradise fire, heading to the easterly point of town that the fire first impacted. Several critical buildings, including the town's only hospital, were located in this area.
“It was like driving through a snow blizzard, only it was an ember blizzard,” said Chief Hawks. In the middle of this ember blizzard, his command presence kicked in.
As Heather was being transported by ambulance from the hospital, Nurse Tamara Ferguson and two other nurses followed behind in another ambulance with another patient as homes all around them were being consumed by fires. Tamara saw the ambulance being attacked by flames and Chief Hawks’ immediate actions to save Heather and the ambulance crew.
As the second ambulance pulled into the driveway of the home where Heather and the others were sheltered, Nurse Ferguson was able to get out of the ambulance on her own, as were the other nurses. Under the guidance of Chief Hawks, they all took refuge in a nearby home that had not yet ignited. Some of the nurses and paramedics tended to patients while others began clearing the home and roof of needles and exterior fuels, and used garden hoses to douse embers and flames as they approached.
“Chief Hawks said you do this, you do this, and you do this. As a result, all of our minds shifted into survival mode,” explained Nurse Tamara Ferguson.
In the end, the home was the only home in the area to stand. The hospital staff, paramedics and patients, including newborn Halle Roebuck, survived.
In interviews following this tragic event, Chief Hawks deflected praise stating, “They followed directions. They did exactly what I asked them to do.”
Pushing The Needle for Relief and Support
Beyond his initial support, Chief Hawks also led an effort to move 50 vehicles at an intersection that had been paralyzed by heavy smoke and fire. An engine crew was directed to provide a water umbrella to protect the vehicles and occupants, while he worked to find safe passage to a more secure location.
A safe route was located to a large KMART parking lot a mile away. Chief Hawks, along with sheriff's deputies, coordinated the safe travel of approximately 50 vehicles gridlocked in the roadway and the occupants. Chief Hawks also came upon an elderly couple huddled in a roadway -- one in a wheelchair -- with embers and flame surrounding them. He immediately loaded them into his vehicle, transported them to the KMART parking lot and, with the help of civilians, sheltered them in an RV on site.
The campfire had devastating results: 85 community members lost their lives, 13,972 residential buildings were destroyed, 528 commercial buildings were destroyed and 153,336 acres burned, all resulting in 16.5 billion dollars of loss. These are but a few examples and stories that came out in the aftermath of the campfire, in which, Chief Hawks put himself in harm’s way to save lives in the town he grew up in and loves.
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