SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — In his 20 years as a paramedic, Mickey Huber assisted in two emergency deliveries. But to him, the most memorable birth is the one that didn’t happen on his watch.
Huber was helping people evacuate from the terrifying wildfire that tore through the Northern California town of Paradise on Nov. 8 when he heard on the scanner about a pregnant woman going into premature labor.
Anastasia Skinner’s baby wasn’t due for another month, but she began to feel contractions as she grabbed her mother’s two dogs and raced to escape the fast-moving blaze. The flames had already hit her car by the time she fought the panic-driven traffic jam out of town and reached a gas station, honking the horn and screaming for help.
“I knew I wasn’t going to make it,” Skinner, 25, said during a phone interview on Friday. “I called my husband and told him goodbye, tell all the kids I love them and make sure they remember me.”
A motorcyclist who saw Skinner in distress flagged a police officer who helped her move to the back seat of her Honda Pilot. Several women who were stuck in the traffic jam brought her blankets and pillows, A retired fire chief came to her aid and someone requested a helicopter to airlift her to the hospital.
Huber, the assistant chief of operations for Butte County Emergency Services, was two miles away but had to get through 30 minutes of gridlock to get to Skinner. When he arrived and evaluated her condition, he knew she couldn’t wait much longer for a helicopter.
“The smoke was thick, and the winds were blowing. The helicopters were having a hard time fighting the fire let alone airlifting patients,” Huber said.
Because Skinner was having a high-risk pregnancy after suffering two miscarriages and other complications related to an inherited disorder, Huber said she may not have made it if she went into full-blown labor.
He arranged a caravan that included three police vehicles to rush Skinner to an ambulance. Then he jumped in the back seat, where he kept her calm until she reached a hospital where her labor was stopped.
“He was sweet. He told me, ‘I’m a guy. I don’t know what this feels like for you, but I’ll try to help you get you through it,’ ” Skinner said. “Then he would yell at people outside of the car, waving his hat and telling them to get out of the way.”
“My goal was to keep her breathing and get her down the hill,” Huber said. “Two of my ambulance crews were trapped by the fire moments before I got to Anastasia so there was a lot of doubt, a lot of worry.”
Skinner said a doctor later told her smoke inhalation put her body under stress and triggered the contractions.
On Dec. 12, more than a month after the fire began, Skinner gave birth via C-section to a full-term, healthy girl and named her after the man she believes saved her life.
“She’s a blessing in every way including what happened at the Camp Fire,” she said about her daughter, Zoele (rhymes with Noel) Mickey Skinner.
Skinner and her husband, Daniel, have three other children, ages 8, 6 and 4.
After getting Skinner to the ambulance, Huber helped with the mass evacuation until the next day. He said he was shocked and honored when he learned the baby was named after him.
“That day was full of a thousand different emotions but that is the strongest memory of the day for me,” Huber said.
More than 50,000 people in Paradise and the neighboring communities of Magalia and Concow were forced to quickly flee the towering, wind-driven flames that burned an area about the size of Chicago — 240 square miles (622 square kilometers) — and became the deadliest U.S. wildfire in at least a century. At least 86 people were killed and 14,000 homes destroyed.
Skinner and her husband, Daniel, lost their home; her mother lost hers too.
“All of our history and what we were as a family, everybody knowing your name and all the things about being in a small town are just gone,” Skinner said.
When her children get sad about the things they lost in the fire, she said she reminds them to count their blessings, including the baby sister who made it alive.
“All of us, including our animals are out. Everybody we know is safe,” Skinner said. “We can replace all the stuff in our house, but we can’t replace each other.”
Associated Press writer Olga Rodriguez contributed to this report from San Francisco.