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When ‘hell moved in,’ a California nurse drove through fire to save lives

The Camp Fire in Northern California has claimed at least 71 lives as of Nov. 16, making it the deadliest wildfire ever in the state. (Video: Blair Guild, Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

By the time Allyn Pierce arrived at his job last Thursday morning, the sky in Paradise, Calif., was an eerie shade of burnt orange, choked with haze. A wildfire had exploded in the area hours before, and the flames were cutting through the Butte County town at an alarming pace. Now, at 8 a.m., they were threatening the Adventist Health Feather River hospital, where Pierce worked as a registered nurse and ICU manager.

Pierce and his team quickly scrambled to help the hospital’s several dozen patients evacuate by ambulance. By 9:30 a.m., he and two colleagues were among the last to evacuate. They piled into his white Toyota Tundra and headed south for less than a mile, then east on wooded Pearson Road.

Pierce had purchased the Tundra the year before and spent many a relaxing weekend modifying what he called his “dream truck.” Months later, it boasted bigger wheels and tires, an aftermarket suspension, a new grill and an imposing ladder rack over the truck bed. A metal cutout of a panda, welded to the vehicle, hinted at the truck’s nickname: “The Pandra.”

Now Pierce was relying on “The Pandra” to get him safely out of a town on fire.

He soon found himself at a standstill, however, trapped in a line of other vehicles, as flames consumed the forest on either side of Pearson Road. An abandoned vehicle on fire blocked him in on the left.

In an effort to calm his passengers, Pierce put on the soundtrack from “Deadpool 2,” fast-forwarding past Celine Dion’s “Ashes” — “I was like, okay, we’re not going to do that one” — and settling on Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.”

“In your eyes … the light, the heat … I am complete," they sang along.

Inside, though, Pierce was panicking.

“I was calm because I’m a nurse, and that’s what we do,” Pierce told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “But I was terrified. I really did think I was going to die."

Around them, the smoke grew thicker until they could barely see the outlines of a firetruck stopped to his right. Pierce’s two colleagues scurried out to take refuge with the firefighters, who put up protective Mylar blankets over their windows. (“That’s when I knew it was bad,” Pierce said.)

Pierce hunkered down in his beloved Pandra, alone. In the distance, he could hear propane tanks exploding; he watched as cars caught fire around him, “like they were wood or something.” The sky at this point had shifted from a furious red to almost a blinding neon gray, as flames licked the sides of his truck.

A haunting, acoustic version of A-Ha’s “Take On Me” filled the truck cabin next.

“Take on me … Take me on … I’ll be gone … In a day or two”

Pierce tried to use his jacket as a shield from the oppressive heat. He recorded a short goodbye video to his wife and two children, then wrapped his phone in whatever he could find in the faint hope it would not be damaged by the fire. Then, he waited.

An unexpected sound jolted him next.

“This bulldozer comes out of nowhere,” Pierce said, “and knocks that flaming truck next to me out of the way.”

Stunned, Pierce steered out of his spot — and turned around to speed back toward the hospital on Paradise’s eastern ridge. To this day, he is not sure exactly why, though he credits knowing his family had already safely left town earlier that morning with being able to think more clearly.

To his amazement, the hospital was still standing, about an hour after its initial evacuation. What’s more, a couple dozen firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers had gathered there and were tending to newly arrived patients from the immediate area.

Pierce and others went into the hospital to collect supplies and set up a triage area outside. Soon, the parking lot resembled an emergency room, complete with food, IV bags, gurneys, wheelchairs and a seating area.

“That part was easy,” Pierce said. “This is what we train for.”

For several hours, the group tended to patients suffering from smoke inhalation and more serious ailments. At one point, the hospital caught on fire, and they had to move operations to the helipad. Around 2 p.m., firefighters told them the roads were once again clear, and they could attempt to evacuate a second time.

“My real takeaway from that was just how everyone worked together,” Pierce said. “It was complete lack of ego. There was never an argument.”

Pierce jumped back in his truck and, this time, traveled due south from the hospital. The second caravan was able to leave town without problems.

When he reunited with his family, his children were in tears.

“They were all running to the truck and crying,” Pierce said. “They didn’t know what I would look like.”

Only later was Pierce able to examine in detail the damage to the Tundra: The heat had welded one of the rear doors shut. The back light covers had partially melted — though the lights themselves still worked. Parts of the hood had warped, and the previously polished white doors were charred in a gradient, giving them the appearance of campfire s’mores.

Pierce posted a picture of the vehicle to Instagram and, in a moment of cheekiness, added the hashtag #perfectmarshellow.

“This truck literally saved my life today,” Pierce wrote in the caption. “My little town of Paradise was literally burning down around me and @the_pandra got me to safety where I could help others … twice.”

Days later, Toyota USA’s official account responded to Pierce on Instagram and said they would be “honored” to give him a brand-new Tundra.

“We found out on social media over the weekend,” Toyota spokeswoman Nancy Hubbell told The Post. “Very quickly we came to the conclusion that we just needed to replace his truck. He was a hero, and we needed to do that.”

Pierce knows brushing off the “hero” label is almost as cliche as being called one, but he is quick to credit the team he worked with.

“Everyone’s calling us heroes. I’m not going to turn that down, I just don’t want to be singled out as a hero,” Pierce said. “I was with so many awesome, just amazing people. It was amazing to be part of.”

Though Pierce’s family is fortunate enough to have relatives in neighboring areas to stay with, he said his heart is heavy with the utter destruction of his hometown and for those who still need help.

As of Wednesday, 56 people had died in the Camp Fire, making it the deadliest wildfire in California history. Officials expect that number to increase, however, as they search the ruins the wildfire left behind in its swift rampage through Paradise.

“It started off as a nice, sunny day, and then hell moved in,” Pierce said. “I wake up in the morning just destroyed at times. I go to sleep, and I see fire. I’m ready for that to be over."

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