Justin Lemieux, MD, says he has never seen anything like the devastation of the Camp Fire, and this is coming from a Stanford emergency medicine physician and a seasoned member of FEMA Urban Search & Rescue California Task Force 3.
The Task Force was called up late last Friday. Lemieux, scheduled to work a 9 a.m. shift in the Stanford emergency department, made a quick 1 a.m. call to colleague Colin Bucks, MD, who responded, “Go. We’ll cover you.” Lemieux left with the team just a few short hours later.
The Task Force set up camp Saturday night in Oroville to begin search operations in what was the town of Magalia. There was no town, just debris. During an initial briefing, the group was told the fire wall raced through the town at 800 yards per minute. “Basically, if someone saw the flames, it was too late. There was no way to outrun it,” Lemieux says.
I know Task Force 3. I shadowed them in a day-long training exercise at Moffett Field last July. But I can’t recognize them in the pictures Lemieux sends; they are covered from head to toe in personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks and Tyvex suits. The smoke is bad, but even worse, many buildings had asbestos and chemical products that cannot be inhaled.
Lemieux is the team doctor. “I support the US&R [urban search and rescue] community. This is an incredibly dangerous environment, so I provide medical support for people doing dangerous work, far from hospitals.”
In the fire zone, the Task Force members, including Lemieux, walk slowly and methodically through ruined neighborhoods, one end to the other, over collapsed structures, caved roofs, ash, sharp debris. Power lines, burned trees, and unsupported chimneys loom overhead. The soil has weakened, caved in spots and searchers move cautiously to avoid falling into hidden basements and septic tanks.
“Sadly, the real service we are doing is searching, not rescuing,” Lemieux explains. Thanks to years in medicine, he has an acceptance of death. What gets to him though, are the signs of what was once a home. “The 'We’re the Millers' kind of things. Then it isn’t just existential. It’s personal.”
Lemieux has treated mostly foot injuries caused by the dangerous terrain. One of the first injuries occurred Sunday night: it was George, a highly-trained search dog. “These dogs are incredibly stoic,” Lemieux explains. “When they are injured, they don’t have a condition in their head that says fall down and cry. They just keep working.”
The first sign George was injured was when his trainer noticed a few drops of blood on his rear leg. Lemieux was called over, saw a laceration and patched it temporarily before taking the dog back to the BOO (base of operations). There, the handler said, “Platz,” (German for down) and George lay without moving. Two team members held him, more to reassure than restrain him, and Lemieux stitched his leg. “When I finished, George jumped up and licked my face. He seemed to know my job was to help him.”
Lemieux is a dog-owner himself, and Dax, his German Shepard, was at the FEMA training exercise I attended. Lemieux hopes to train him for search and rescue but notes, “I’ll be incredibly lucky if he turns out as well as George.”
Monday morning, George was back at work, searching, but not before Lemieux changed his bandages. That evening, and Tuesday morning, when Lemieux called George over, the dog lay down and lifted the leg expectantly for the dressing change. Each time, when finished, he licked Lemieux enthusiastically as if in thanks.
Lemieux has been told the team may be on site for the next several weeks, with additional members rotating in for relief. They are taking it one day at a time. And each night, when the team retires to large tents, George crawls into his crate and sleeps.
Photo at top courtesy of Justin Lemieux; image of George by Tim Houweling and Katie Roberts