Boulder Creek families weather Bear Fire, gather family and pets close

Jane Wohlhueter and Philip DeGreen brought their kids to the Zayante Fire Station after being evacuated from their home in Bear Creek Estates early Tuesday after the Bear Fire grew to more than 125 acres. (Dan Coyro -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)
Jane Wohlhueter and Philip DeGreen brought their kids to the Zayante Fire Station after being evacuated from their home in Bear Creek Estates early Tuesday after the Bear Fire grew to more than 125 acres. (Dan Coyro -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)

BOULDER CREEK >> The sound from Philip DeGreen and Jane Wohlhueter’s front door at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday went something like this: “Thump thump thump. Phil and Jane, wake up!”

The Boulder Creek family was one of about 200 households receiving reverse 911 calls alerting them to a wildfire spreading in the northern reaches of the county early Tuesday. The couple, their two young daughters and neighbors were evacuated first to the Boulder Creek Elementary School, then to the Zayante Fire Protection District Station when officials considered, but ultimately rejected, opening the school for the day.

“Luckily, we live in a great neighborhood and my neighbor came and knocked on our door. My wife saw a flashlight on the window,” said DeGreen, sitting cross-legged on the fire station floor with 2-year-old daughter Beazie on his lap. “Unfortunately, my neighbor got to meet me in my underwear.”

Wohlhueter, one of the few remaining evacuees at the station after 10 a.m., said he and his wife had their cell phones set to “do no disturb” overnight, and did not see the numerous 911 alerts until after their neighbor arrived. They rushed from their otherwise peaceful Bear Creek Estates haven with a few sundry items — toothbrushes, contact solution, computer hard drives, stuffed toys their daughters were clutching in bed — as smoke clogged the air outside. No flames were visible, however, the couple said.

“I used to work for a publishing company specializing in emergency preparedness materials. So, I should have had my ‘go bags’ and all that stuff together in my head,” Wohlhueter said. “I’m cautiously optimistic. I feel like we are getting in on the disaster bandwagon in California. It’s good practice — let’s hope it’s just practice.”

BARRED ENTRY

Late Tuesday afternoon, bits of gray ash continued to rain down under a hazy sun along Bear Creek Road, which was closed to through-traffic about four miles from the center of town. At a barricade staffed by Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office personnel, area residents trickled up the road, fruitlessly seeking a return home or first-hand information on the fire’s spread.

Parked next to the barrier were Hilda Sanchez and Jan LaFever, related through their children’s marriage. The night before, Sanchez had passed a police barricade and assumed someone had died in an accident, she said. While talking to her granddaughter on the phone shortly after, she looked out her home’s window to see red flames in the distance.

“I said, ‘Oh, there’s a fire. She said, ‘Oh, grandma, make sure there’s a fire. Maybe it’s the moon or something,” Sanchez said. “So I hang up and I see the red line moving. Then my daughter calls and she says, ‘Mom, you need to leave. There’s a big fire.’”

With some persistence, Sanchez was able to contact all of all her children and convince them to evacuate before packing her dog’s bed and blanket, jewelry, a mishmash of clothing and important documents to leave her Deer Creek Road home. The family all headed to LaFever’s home, and safety.

“It’s like an earthquake. I think a fire’s an accident. You can’t be paranoid,” said Sanchez of her optimism and “quiet panic” in the face of the strengthening fire.

SAFE RETURN

Fellow Boulder Creek resident Randi Alves, along with a pit bull, golden retriever, a plethora of cats and numerous family members, was back at home in her Boulder Creek home outside the fire evacuation area by Tuesday afternoon.

“It was really funny, because we always have a family meeting every week and tonight was our night to go over disaster preparedness and I had just read the thing over to show them what it was all about,” Alves said. “That’s because of Kevin Foster and the CERT team. I had gone to a meeting and he had passed out all of these things. I didn’t follow everything, because I was planning on getting ready. But now I know, you have to be prepared.”

Both Alves and Foster are administrators for the Boulder Creek Neighbors page on Facebook, a family-oriented site for sharing community updates with more than 3,000 members.

Alves said the Bear Fire’s most important lesson was that nothing is as important as family and pets. Staying calm, having important documents in one box and heeding evacuation directives early were also top takeaways, she said. Plus, remembering to pack chargers for electronics, Alves added.

Information on emergency preparedness: ready.gov. Cal Fire incident updates, tips, social media accounts and alert sign-ups: fire.ca.gov.

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