Nurse Nichole Jolly is lucky to be alive, and her story reads more like something you’d see on the big screen than something that could happen in real life. She’s being called a hero, and for good reason—as she faced down a raging wild fire twice in the line of duty.
Nurse Jolly was working her shift at Feather River Hospital in Butte County, California when the hospital received the news they’d been dreading—the wildfire sweeping across the state was now heading in their direction, and fast. The staff flew into action, getting patients loaded and out the door as quickly as possible. Nichole refused to leave until the last of the patients had left, then she jumped in her car and headed for safety.
But the flames had moved too quickly. The roads were blocked by fire, smoke, and disabled vehicles, and Nichole found herself trapped as smoke began pouring into her car. Knowing this could be the end, she called her husband.
“I told him I probably was not going to make it. I’m trapped and there’s flames everywhere. I told him to take care of the kids and tell them I love them and I love him,” she remembered saying.
But her husband wasn’t about to let her go easily.
“He told me, ‘Don’t die. Get out of that car and run. Don’t die.'”
Nichole obeyed. As quickly as she could, she began running down the road through the dark black smoke. Even with visibility failing, she spotted a familiar car ahead—her friend and co-worker Karen. But the car was filled with smoke, and the doors wouldn’t open.
“It was melting front of my eyes, and I thought for sure, I just watched my best friend die right in front of me,” Jolly said. But she knew she couldn’t stay. “I had to move on, I had to keep going. I couldn’t sit there and you know just pick up the pieces. I had to keep running. That was absolutely devastating. That was one of the hardest moments I had to do right there.”
She pressed on, the heat from the pavement and the heavy smoke becoming unbearable. Cars on either side began bursting into flame, and for one horrifying moment… so did Nichole. She took cover in another car where she was able to put out the flames (after they melted a hole through the leather seats), but soon, smoke began to fill that space as well. She began to run once more.
“This was truly the time I thought I’m dead because I couldn’t see in front of me and I was running out of air. I pushed forward and God heard my prayers because I ran into a fire truck,” Jolly said. “If that fire truck that I grabbed on to wasn’t there, I would’ve gone down.”
The door of the truck had melted off, but firefighters inside heard the nurse and quickly pulled her in. For a moment, she thought the horrifying ordeal might be over… but then the fire chief shattered her hopes. The truck couldn’t escape, he said, they were stuck… and they needed to brace for the worst.
“We were trapped by cars on fire and trees falling around us. The wind was so bad it caused a fire tornado that took out a few cars,” Jolly said.
Just then, another hero—this one driving a bulldozer—crashed onto the road, pushing burning vehicles aside and clearing a path. But the way out was still blocked, and firetruck had to turn around and head back to the hospital. She passed her own car on the way back, and that of her friend Karen. Both were completely engulfed in flames.
But when the firetruck arrived at the hospital, Nichole knew that now was not the time for tears or breakdowns. Patients were flooding into the building, and there was work to be done. She leaped from the truck and immediately went to work.
And as fate would have it, Nichole was given an unexpected gift that helped her press on. As she worked treating her patients, she spotted a familiar face in the crowd.
“I turned to and saw my beautiful friend Karen and we broke down crying in each other’s arms, “Jolly wrote in her post. And the two refused to separate, tackling the oncoming challenges as a team. “We were able to triage patients and take care of wounds, and take care of breathing issues… and just we said nope, we’re not leaving each other again. We stayed right, hand in hand together, took care of patients and got them back to safety.”
The flames continued to press closer, but Nichole and Karen stayed until every last patient had once again been evacuated. And as the last to leave, the two were forced to watch as their beloved hospital burned to the ground.
Once again, the nurses attempted another escape through the fiery roads—this time in a doctor’s car—but this time, they were able to make it through safely to the other side, where Nichole was finally reunited with her family. She learned that her home had been claimed by the fire, but her spirits have not been dampened—she remains grateful for her husband, their three kids, and a medical community that came together in spectacular ways even in the face of death.
You can hear Nurse Jolly’s story in her own words right here.
To Nurse Jolly, Nurse Karen, and the thousands of other doctors, nurses, and first responders who put life on the line during the fires this year… a thousand “thank you’s” will never be enough.