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Camp Fire superhero doctor rescues patient from burning ambulance: ‘I think you just do it’

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David Russell, MD, was attempting to flee to safety during the Camp Fire but saved a patient from a burning ambulance instead. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

When faced with the choice between saving someone from a burning ambulance or fleeing to safety himself, Dr. David Russell chose the former, proving that not all heroes wear a cape. Some, instead, wear a white coat.

Russell is a pediatrician at Feather River Hospital in Paradise, Calif., a town that the Camp Fire has decimated to ashes. Feather River was evacuated due to the wildfire the morning of Nov. 8, sending patients as far away as possible to continue care. Russell was ready to load his truck with patients when he was informed that there was no one left to transfer. So he left the hospital alone.

When he got on the road, he was faced with bumper-to-bumper traffic and a difficult decision. “It got darker and darker and darker and then started seeing more fire,” Russell told local news station KCRA. “Not just patches, but fire and a burning house on my right, some fire not too far off on my left. Started hearing kind of the explosions.”

As the flames grew closer, his gas gauge dropped lower. “Triaging the situation, I didn’t have enough gas in my vehicle to really be in a lot of traffic and vehicle running for a long time,” he recalled. So he called his father and brother, who is a firefighter. His brother’s advice was to abandon the vehicle. “Just go ahead and cover your head and face and run. Get out of there,” he advised.

So he did. Flashlight in hand, he made it about 20 yards before being faced with another difficult dilemma. “There was an ambulance, and I thought, ‘Oh, man.’ I had to make a decision,” Russell told KCRA. “You know, keep running or do I stop and help the ambulance?” He recalled thinking, “We need to probably take care of the patients that are there.” His decision was made for him when he heard someone calling for help from the burning ambulance. “There was a patient in there that was calling me, ‘Come over, come over! Get me out, get me out!’” he said.

He took on the challenge with a paramedic. When they got the woman onto the road, they realized they couldn’t stay put because of the approaching inferno. They found a nearby house where a firefighter was positioned in an SUV. Two nurses from Russell’s hospital were in the group, which included more patients, for a total of four. “The other paramedics or EMTs facilitated breaking in the back gate,” Russell said. The medical professionals tended to the patients in the garage, which was where the firefighter instructed them to go.

But they weren’t out of the woods yet. “And then, at that point, it was very evident that the roar of the fire, the embers flying, that maybe we weren’t going to get out before the fire,” he said. So, along with the first responders, these medical professionals took on the fire themselves, swiftly transitioning from one type of hero to another. “We found hoses around the house hooked up to spigots, turned the spigots on and just started defending the back corner of the house where there was active fire,” Russell said.

In the end, everyone survived, thanks to this doctor and his rapidly assembled team.

Not everyone in the town was as lucky. Paradise Mayor Jody Jones estimated that 90 percent of the town’s residential buildings have been destroyed, according to NPR. As of this writing, the Camp Fire’s death toll was 63.

“I think you just do it,” Russell said of taking the risk. “There wasn’t time to call people. There was just time to say, ‘You know, if we don’t do this now … there may not be a next time.’”

Yahoo Lifestyle has reached out to a spokesperson from Feather River Hospital for comment and will update this story when we hear back.

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