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"It Was the Most Helpless I Had Ever Felt": Latter-day Saint Couple Shares How Prayers, Promptings Helped Them Escape California Fire

by | Nov. 09, 2018

Mormon Life

Only black pillars of smoke and the orange glow of smoldering flames marked the town that had once been Paradise, California.

Just hours before the town of 27,000 nestled in a forest of pine trees had been "picturesque," resident and obstetrician-gynecologist Ross Hanchett said. 

But by Thursday night, the Camp Fire had roared through 30-square-miles, engulfing nearly the entire Paradise community and leaving many with the harrowing experience of escaping the flames. 

"It Sounded Like a Freight Train"

At around 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, Ross Hanchett's wife, Sara Hanchett, had just arrived home from dropping her youngest off to school when he sent her a text that school was canceled because of fire evacuations. 

"That's not unusual for there to be one area evacuated," Sara says. "We're used to that." 

Noting the smoke in the sky as he made his way to the hospital where he worked, Ross had just arrived in his office when he heard the announcement over the speakers: code black. All the patients were to be evacuated immediately. 

After frantically signing prescriptions, watching newborns carted down the hall, and helping patients outside to waiting ambulances and cars of nurses willing to drive patients out of harm's way, Ross saw the full extent of the fire.

"The flames were just, I mean, it just sounded like a freight train," Ross says. "It sounded like a jet engine at one point it was so intense."

While on her way back from picking up her son and his friend, Sara received a phone call from Ross. 

"He said, 'It's really bad.' He wasn't panicked, but I was trying to calm him because I was on Bluetooth with all my kids in my car and he was like, 'No, Sara, it's bad. The sky is completely black over here.'"

Sara didn't know it at the time, but the fire was progressing quickly. Three areas in Paradise were already being evacuated as winds up to 50 mph moved the fire through the town. And Sara was across town from her husband with her three kids plus her son's friend. 

"That's where the Spirit and the miracle set in," she said. "There wasn't panic, it was just calm. There was just this feeling of, 'Look around, grab a couple things.'" She says she only got nervous when she had the prompting to grab her and her husband's love letters, irreplaceable keepsakes. 

Then one of Ross's friends messaged her and Ross on Facebook. The flames were on the same side of town as Sara. Looking from her back porch, Sara saw the orange glow above the treetops that could only mean one thing: time to go.

"It Was the Most Helpless I Had Ever Felt"

Meanwhile, Ross was stuck in gridlock traffic as flames licked the sides of the road. He watched as an ambulance 10 cars away carrying a woman who had just given birth via C-section tried to get around the line of cars only to burst into flames at the side of the road. 

Luckily, the woman and the emergency personnel made it out safely, but Ross wasn't so sure he would fare the same. 

"There was quite literally buildings burning, houses burning on the street," he says. "My driver's side window was so hot I couldn't touch it. I watched a bumper melt off the car in front of me."

Burning limbs fell from trees and dented the hood of Ross's truck as the temperature inside the vehicle reached 110 degrees. In front of him, a family jumped out of their own truck, throwing out possessions that had caught on fire.

"I was scared," Ross says. "I was in the fire, and there were no firemen around me, and I was in gridlock traffic, and I didn't know what to do. . . It was the most helpless I had ever felt."

All the while, he was on the phone with Sara, who was packing up and getting ready to evacuate with their children and her son's friend. 

They had just said their "I love yous" when the cell tower went out, leaving Sara and Ross disconnected from each other. 

A Widow for Five Hours

Sara, unsure of her husband's condition, piled a few belongings, a dog, two turtles, and four children into her car. She had spent maybe five minutes packing and was able to get out and onto the main road just before traffic hit. A friend who left 15 minutes behind her wasn't so lucky and was in gridlock as the fires raged around her. 

Ross was in the same boat, but strangely, he felt a sense of peace. 

"To be honest with you, it was at that point that I started praying that I would just be able to make the right decisions," Ross says. "That I would know what to do in a situation that I had no experience in. And that's when I started having small promptings like, 'Hey, turn your air conditioning off. There's too much smoke outside.' And so I did."

Ross also started watching the behavior of the fire, trying to decide where he could go if he had to get off the road. But overall, he knew he needed to not panic and stay in the middle of the road and stay away from the hottest parts of the fire. If he panicked and tried to get around traffic, he knew his car would light on fire. 

Eventually firefighters cleared a path with bulldozers for Ross and hundreds of others. 

Meanwhile, Sara and the rest of her family were at a stake center in Chico, the designated emergency rendezvous for her ward. As she helped other ward members find food and shelter, Sara wasn't sure if she was a widow or not as she heard stories of people driving over hubcaps of other cars. 

"As the hours ticked by, I started seeing more people that I knew had been in that area. That's when I started getting worried. I started seeing more people from that area and he wasn't there," Sara says. 

But about five hours after they were disconnected, Ross made it to the stake center. 

"We Have Everything That Loves Us"

"It was such a relief," Ross says. "I didn't realize that so many people had known that I was missing. I had ward members lining up, I had people crying to see me, and then I went to see my wife and it was just such a moment of being reunited."

For now, the Hanchetts are staying with family. Though they're not sure yet, it's very likely their home burned as the Camp Fire raged through Paradise. Ross also heard the back half of the hospital where he worked was burned and he's not sure if it will ever reopen. 

While these losses are incredibly difficult, the Hanchetts say they saved what matters most to them. 

"We have each other, we have our dog, we have our two turtles. We have everything that loves us," Ross says. 

All images courtesy Ross Hanchett

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