Elaina Gonzales, a 52-year-old ex-military/ex-police officer fell victim to the November 8, 2018 Camp Fires in Paradise, CA. At the time, Elaina was working for Allied Security as a security officer. On that fateful Thursday in November, Elaina was on her way to work. She was scheduled to report at Feather River Hospital. She got a call at approximately 6:30 a.m. from her Supervisory officer notifying her that the fires were two canyons away. When she arrived, the fires were fast approaching. Embers were flying, brush and trees were burning. She immediately started evacuating patients of the hospital. It was her and 2 other security officers. She felt a burden of responsibility. She wanted to leave, to get home, get her dog and get to safety. But she couldn’t.
Elaina focused her attention to the emergency room. She lined up patients (some in wheelchairs, some unable to walk) assisting in the evacuation efforts. Ambulances were unable to get to the hospital. They had limited resources and were forced to transport patients three at a time down the hill to Enloe Hospital. In all, she aided in the transport of about 60 patients to safety. She describes the scene as “Active burning. The flames were coming up from the canyon and the building was on fire”. Once all the patients had been transported, Elaina was last to leave the burning building. She and the other two security officers jumped in her car in an attempt to get down the mountain to safety. Ultimately, Elaina ditched her car on the side of the road because traffic down the hill was deadlocked. Performing on adrenaline and impulse, she and the other passengers got out of the vehicle and started to run. Fire was creeping up the mountain on both sides of the road. It was a swirling scene of embers, trees burning, smoke and pandemonium. “Embers were flying…as we were running, one of the officer’s uniform caught fire”, Elaina recalls. Despite the chaos and fear, she remained focused. She did not want to die. She commanded, “We have to run; we have to get ahead of this…”. Elaina was focused on the safety of the two officers first and foremost.
Elaina had wanted to go back to her home but was unable. Police Officers had the roads blocked and barricaded. Her Dog! She had to leave her dog. Elaina lost her home, her car and her dog in that fire. Unfortunately, it goes beyond physical possessions.
Elaina started experiencing onset anxiety & stress almost immediately. She was experiencing respiratory issues due to heavy smoke inhalation. In the face of these conditions, Elaina was ordered to report back to the Feather River Hospital the following day to the scene of the fire. The purpose, she believes – to secure the hospital from looting. Elaina didn’t feel safe. The conditions were still bad. Fire was still burning. Yet – she went and followed orders. Elaina expressed these concerns and made it clear to her supervisors but they were relentless. They were making demands despite the tragic circumstances. Elaina continued to work, and report, spent hours on the phone with other officers all day and night throughout the weekend. She recalls thinking, “I just wanted a moment to breathe…”.
The ensuing Monday, Elaina sat before her supervisors. She recalls expressing she thought she needed some time off. She asked the HR Manager what her options were. In her recollection, his direct quote was “I am here to protect the company”.
Elaina retained Keith More, co-founder of Bentley & More LLP. A Workers’ Compensation claim was filed so that Elaina could get the necessary medical treatment for the smoke inhalation and anxiety. Unfortunately, the claim has been denied. A letter dated February 5, 2019, states “After careful consideration of all available information, we are denying liability for your claim…there is a factual dispute surrounding the circumstances of your alleged injury…” The work comp insurance carrier claims the fires were an act of G-d and hence not covered.
“How can anyone state these fires were an act of G-d when Pacific Gas & Electric has admitted its responsibility,” exclaimed Keith More.
The Workers’ Compensation system is in place for reasons exactly like this. Yet Elaina’s claim has been denied. Keith and his team at Bentley & More LLP will continue to fight the system. A Priority Conference is scheduled for later this month before the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board. Keith will present facts in support of his client in hopes this decision will be reversed and Elaina will get the benefits she deserves.