Former Yukoner helping people escape raging California fires

Rachel Jensen grew up in Yukon but is now a paramedic in California. She's been busy this week helping move vulnerable people to safer areas.

'It is just a nightmare right now, there's just so many people that have been affected,' says Rachel Jensen

Rachel Jensen grew up in Yukon and is now a paramedic in Southern California. She's been busy for the last week moving vulnerable people, including the elderly and those with mobility issues, away from areas threatened by wildfire. (Submitted by Rachel Jensen)

Wednesday was supposed to be her day off, but former Yukoner Rachel Jensen instead found herself back at work again, helping people escape California's raging wildfires.

"It is just a nightmare right now — there's just so many people that have been affected, so it's everywhere and everybody is involved," she said. 

Jensen is a paramedic who lives in Victorville, near Ventura County in Southern California, where the large Thomas fire has destroyed hundreds of homes.

Firefighters work to put out a blaze burning homes early on Tuesday in Ventura, Calif. Authorities said the blaze broke out Monday and grew wildly in the hours that followed, consuming vegetation that hasn't burned in decades. (Ryan Cullom/Ventura County Fire Department via Associated Press)

She's the daughter of a long-time Whitehorse firefighter — retired Platoon Chief Norm Jensen, who worked for the department for 35 years.

After attending F.H Collins Secondary High School in Whitehorse, Jensen followed in her dad's footsteps to become an emergency services worker.

For the last ten days, she has been helping move people — the elderly, and anybody with limited mobility — away from fire ravaged areas along the California coast.

Six major wildfires are burning in Southern California with no immediate end in sight. The Thomas Fire is one of the biggest in California's history, and is estimated to be as big as New York City. It has already destroyed more than 900 structures, with most being homes.

Rachel Jensen grew up in Whitehorse, and her dad was a long time firefighter in the city. She now works as a paramedic in Southern California. ( submitted by Rachel Jensen)

It's keeping Jensen and over a thousand firefighters and other front-line workers busy. She says there are a lot of people who need help in the danger zones.

"We are trying to get to the homes where like, you know, they might not even have a car but they have someone who is bed-bound, or on a ventilator, or if they require oxygen or IV and stuff — they can't move without us," she said.

Gusty winds and dry conditions have fuelled the wildfires, causing them to burn large swaths of land and destroy everything in their path.

Jensen says she can see the fires burning not far from where she lives. It's taking a toll on her health — she says she is feeling the effects of smoke inhalation.

"Like, everywhere you go it's really smoky — it's like purple smoke. So it's the air quality that is not very good," Jensen said.

Firefighters attack the Thomas Fire’s north flank with backfires as they fight a massive wildfire north of Los Angeles, near Ojai, California. (Gene Blevins/Reuters)

Her job involves getting people to safer areas, especially vulnerable people such as the elderly, at retirement homes, nursing facilities and in their own homes. She says they are moving people further inland to higher ground — out of the path of the fires, and away from the smokiest air.

Jensen figures she's moved over 60 people to safety so far, working 12 to 14-hour days, and doing a lot of driving. 

Pets to be rescued

Jensen says she and other emergency workers have been also rescuing cats, dogs, and other pets.

I think there was a ranch the other day that had 23 horses that burned- Rachel Jensen

A lot of people also have horses on their ranches, she says, but with the limited space in the ambulance they really can't do anything for those animals. She says in the Ventura County area, there were more than a thousand horses waiting to be moved.

"That is sad, too — like, you have people saying goodbye to their pets. I think there was a ranch the other day that had 23 horses that burned," she said.

Another sad part, for her, is knowing that some of the people she helped will find out they no longer have a home to return to.

'We are trying to get to the homes where like you know they might not even have a car. But they have someone who is bed-bound, or on a ventilator,' said Jensen, seen here with co-worker Michael Vigil. (submitted by Rachel Jensen)