Evacuating from Boulder Creek


Map of Santa Cruz county with affected fire areas highlighted.

Rich De Borba, General Manager at our Campbell store, is sharing his experience with evacuating the fires & the importance of community during times like this.

For a man who's never short of words, the fire burning in our small community of Boulder Creek and over the San Lorenzo Valley has me beyond speechless. We've been evacuated since the night of Tuesday the 18th. As of now, the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire has consumed over 80,000 acres, threatening over 24,000 structures, with 538 structures confirmed destroyed, some of which were over 100 years old. 1,697 personnel have been assigned to the incident. One life has been lost. It's only 19% contained. 

Last Tuesday was a normal (awesome) day at work and as I was closing up the Campbell store at around 7pm I began getting texts from my neighbors about them evacuating due to the fire. My first thought was, "What fire?" I literally had heard nothing about all the small fires that started in our beloved woods from all the lightning strikes a few days prior.  

I immediately called my wife, who was studying at home with our dogs. She was also unaware of the fire danger and started reaching out to learn more. I asked her to pack a bag and I was on my way home.  

A little backstory on us: our aunt and uncle lost their home in the Santa Rosa fires a few years back and they literally had seconds to evacuate. So as I drove home up our windy mountain roads, I was caught wondering if I was doing the wrong thing in trying to get home and grab some things from our house. I wasn't even sure what the things that I wanted to grab would be. I was able to briefly (hands-free, of course) call my wife and tell her that if there was any word of immediate danger, she should just get out.

About 45 minutes later I arrived home to see all of our neighbors packing up their vehicles and fleeing our beautiful mountain town. Everyone was on edge but in a small community like ours everyone was checking on everyone and making sure people were getting out safely. That's about the time we started getting texts and calls from emergency services for immediate and mandatory evacuation. Again, knowing our aunt and uncle had seconds to get out before their house went up in flames, I was contemplating if there was anything worth spending the time to grab, and if doing so would jeopardize my family and my life. At that point I had the dogs in the car, our personal documents that we keep in a small fire safe, and the bag of clothes my wife had packed. I ran in, grabbed a duffle and started throwing clothes in it with some personal hygiene items. Oddly enough, I grabbed a down jacket, three pairs of jeans, lots of underwear but really nothing to wear considering it's been 100+ out. That's how frantic and nervous we were trying to grab items before running back out. I remembered to grab some dog food and leashes for the dogs as we locked up and ran out like the rest of our town.

In hindsight, we could have loaded the cars with most of our belongings but without knowing where the fire was, and knowing that there are only a few very small roads out of town, and seeing all of our neighbors driving by and honking, yelling "Let's get out of here", we decided nothing else was worth potentially risking our lives over. Oddly, there were a few moments of laughter when we made that last run around the house checking things and kind of grabbing random stuff we thought we should bring. Needless to say, we forgot some personally valuable items and grabbed some easily replaceable ones. 

Rich with two of his dogs.We hurriedly got out of town and headed down the mountain roads, not feeling safe until we were on Hwy 17 in Los Gatos. At that point it was roughly around 9-10pm. We pulled both our cars over, hugged our frightened dogs, hugged each other, and then paused to think of what we should do now. We called everyone we had contact info for and made sure they were safe too. We have an amazing circle of friends and family, so we were very fortunate that we had places to go and couches to crash on if need be. Since it was close by, we chose to head back to Sports Basement and crash out for the night so we could try to calm our nerves. We figured that we would know more about where to go and what to do in the morning. Honestly we were hoping that we would be back the next day like it'd been the few other times we got evacuated due to fires.

We obviously didn't sleep and waited for the 6am press conference from Cal Fire to try and determine what was going on. Seeing the initial size of the fire and the immediate destruction made us glad we ran when we did. It's a devastating fire, and it's running through mountain areas that haven't experienced any fire in my lifetime. There was a lot of fuel and it's a very difficult fire to fight.

Fast forward one week later and we're still couch surfing, now at my in-laws place. Our last 7 days have been mostly fear, worry, tears, some smiles, and lots of building on the amazing connections we have in our tiny community of Boulder Creek. While we try to get work done remotely, our days are filled with following our neighborhood feeds on Facebook as thousands of us sit and wait for word on whether our houses made it or not. Even as I write this, I had another neighbor text me to tell me that their house was burned to the ground. It's been like that for days and days. It feels like every day this slow moving and somewhat erratic fire has taken another one of our friend's homes. At some points we were told our house won't make it and then told that it's fine. It's a roller coaster of emotion, to say the least. 

Many of my neighbors and friends weren't able to run to a family member's house like we did. They're living out of their cars and trucks, with the help of our amazing community and the Red Cross. Most left with as little as we did, grabbing their loved ones, fur babies, and maybe a change of clothes, but that's it. I think we were all hopeful this would be a small fire, easily contained. We had no idea it would take weeks, if not longer, to be able to get back to our houses. Our community is one of the strongest around and with support from each other and some agencies, we hope to survive this and come back a stronger knit community than ever.  

Some thoughts on the future and things I wish I'd known:

  • Many parts of our small town have been saved by the efforts of the volunteer fire department and local heroes. I will no doubt offer my services to the volunteer fire department moving forwards, to ensure that I too can be there to help save lives and property. 
  • We don't have kids and we were so worried about all of our friends that had to evacuate with their kids. We can't imagine the impact that has on them.
  • Our kids are the fluffy canine ones - they were definitely rattled, and are struggling without the life they usually know. They look sad and act scared. I wish I would have grabbed a few more essentials for them. 

Rich's three dogs curled up on a bed together.

  • Having our locked portable fire safe with most of our valuables, passports, and paperwork in it made getting out in a hurry a bit easier. Some of my friends that also evacuated did an even better job of being prepared than we did by having their important documents scanned and saved in the cloud. I will be sure to do that once I am able to get back home, assuming we have a home to go back to.
  • While a lot of us in the neighborhood are very close, there were a lot of us who didn't have each other's contact info, which made checking in on each other much harder. Most of this we have rectified in the sleepless hours on all the social media sites as we try to figure out what's happening and what's left standing, but it would have been good to know that contact info beforehand. We're also grateful to have had a chance in all this chaos and worry to get to know a lot more of our community, and to be able to call them all friends. 
  • We also were/are fortunate to be able to have saved a bit in an emergency fund in case things like this happened. Being able to get a hotel room, some food, gas or whatnot in the event we are stuck outside of our homes has been a huge relief. Some of my friends weren't that lucky - thank goodness for help from the Red Cross and from our community as a whole. 
  • I wish I would have grabbed a better selection of clothes. We've had to go to the store to get some basics like food, socks, razors, and other hygiene items, and that really adds up fast financially. Again, this is where the donations and kindness of strangers has helped so many of my neighbors and would have helped us too if we stayed close by. 
  • Know what your insurance covers in events like this. Our insurance covers the hotel in case of evacuation, and we could have taken advantage of that rather than crashing at my in-laws house, hours away from our home. Our insurance also sent us some money to help cover the costs of not being able to go home. 
  • I keep extra water and fuel with my truck, and I never go home with less than 1/4 tank of gas, or I fill up in town before heading home. In an emergency, you have no time to get gas or assume gas will be available wherever you're going.
  • I wish I'd had a list of things to grab in an emergency. That may have included already packed bags or individual items. I obviously was a little frantic and couldn't remember everything. Dog beds, food, their food bowls, some sentimental items you just can't replace that are small enough to grab.
  • I am an outdoor adventurer and keep my truck pretty rigged. In it I keep a few bins of goods. One bin I have labeled "Camp Kitchen" contains water purification gear, a backpacking stove, backpacking food, utensils, coffee, cups, bowls and a fire starter. I'm glad I had it ready. I also have another bin with an axe, camp chairs, emergency toilet, tarps, first aid kits and a hammock.

Box filled with camp kitchen wares

Box filled with supplies including an ax, stove, etc.

 

  • Make sure you are signed up for reverse 911, and any alert systems in your area, so that you'll get notified quickly in case of emergencies. 

One of the biggest reasons we moved to Boulder Creek is because it's a close, tight-knit community. People help each other, care for each other, and many put their lives on the lines to help save our community. While I consider myself a warm, friendly, giving, and outgoing person, I have more reason than ever to make sure my give-back outweighs my take-away when it comes to this amazing community. We will rebuild if it comes to that, and we will for sure help those around us rebuild or do whatever is needed as they try to piece their lives back together after losing all of their possessions and their homes. That's what a community is, and I'm proud to be a member of this one. 

14 comments

  • Jed Clark says...

    Rich….you are my hero, again. Well written story about a really horrible experience that could have been a lot worse if you weren’t you.

    I think the preparation points that you bring up are spot on.

    There is a lot of love in your words. Keep writing.

    Big love coming to you from Petaluma

    Jed

    On August 27, 2020
  • Ann Hoagland says...

    I wish you best of everything, Rich. I came out unscathed from the Ventura Thomas fire 2 years ago. Many in your community will experience degrees of PTSD. It’s not over when you move back. A tip that is too late for you, but put a large kitchen trash bag in the bottom of the sock, tee shirt, underwear, etc. drawers. Then you can just grab the bag and scoop quickly. Good luck to you.

    On August 27, 2020
  • Kiana Tran says...

    Rich, it’s heartbreaking to hear of your story and I thank you for sharing it with us. We can all learn from your experience and be reminded to be better prepared and equipped with our emergency/important items, paperwork and resources should the need to evacuate is ever thrust upon us. I’m sure you couldn’t have imagined something like this happening to you so I’m so glad to hear that you have family and friends to turn to in your time of need. Prayers and positive thoughts go out to you and your neighbors for the safety of all your homes and loved ones.

    On August 27, 2020
  • Yvonne Linton says...

    Rich, Thanks for your poignant article and packing check list. I just printed it and will compile it soon.
    While I live close to your Sunnyvale Store, I have been to the Campbell store many times, and love that it was a refuge for you that first frightening night. We appreciate you taking time to share your lessons with us. You put us there in that moment. I know I would have packed the way you did and it made me determined to finally put some emergency plans together and decide in advance what I would take. We want to avoid those unpleasant thoughts, but you brought up so many practical points in your article. All the best to you and your community of Boulder Creek. Sorry for your friends who lost their homes.

    On August 27, 2020
  • mike mcquiddy says...

    My heart goes out to you Rich and your family.. your story is worthy of publishing in the local news ..
    we also lost our home in Santa Rosa from the 2017 wildfires and just recently moved back into our lovely rebuild home .. but 2-1/2 years of displacement from our home of 41 yrs and losing all our material family heritage leaves a permanent black hole in my consciousness .. we’ve found the strength to move on with our lives thru the camaraderie of our neighborhood and the local support in our community .. I’m hoping your home has survived this natural disaster and you are safe … for next steps in the recovery process, I highly recommend looking for meetings set up by United Policy Holders Group .. they are the best support group I’ve experienced and they announce their meetings thru various public sources … Best wishes … Mike and Trudy

    On August 26, 2020

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