TAHOE CITY, Calif. — When Gabrielle Cuevas awoke early Monday and realized everything around him was on fire, he immediately rushed to the bedroom where his son always slept.
He opened the door, and what he saw was terrifying: The bed was on fire, and the whole room was filled with smoke.
“The kids were still asleep when I woke up. I just ran to the other room … I saw the bed was on fire, and I was very scared because my son was in there,” Cuevas said in a Tuesday morning phone interview.
But luckily, his 10-year-old son was not in the room. Unable to sleep earlier in the night, he decided to move to the living room, a decision his father said without a doubt saved his life.
When Cuevas opened the bedroom door, he was hit with an oxygenated backdraft of flames — “a big fire explosion,” he called it — and fell to the floor, dazed.
“By the time I woke up again, there was smoke everywhere. You couldn’t stand up, so I was crawling, just crawling,” he said.
Cuevas made it outside and hurried to the side door. He opened it and saw “fire all over.”
“I was yelling at the kids to wake up, and then I started grabbing them one by one,” he said. “The smoke detectors were going off, everything was so quick, it happened so fast.”
SEVEN PEOPLE DISPLACED
While Cuevas, 28, suffered minor burns to his hands and face and from smoke inhalation during the ordeal, his four children escaped the apartment fire Monday at Granlibakken Conference Center and Lodge unharmed.
North Tahoe Fire Protection District crews responded at about 4:30 a.m. to the blaze. The two-unit building, which was destroyed, serves as workforce housing for employees of the resort, said district spokesman Dave Zaski.
Cuevas, who works maintenance at Granlibakken, was transported by CareFlight helicopter to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno; he was released later Monday to recover at his sister’s home down the hill.
A husband and wife — also employees at the resort — were in the other unit and also escaped unharmed. Their names were not immediately available.
Crews from the Truckee and Squaw Valley fire districts helped put out the blaze in about 10 minutes, Zaski said. Its cause remains under investigation.
Zaski said Cuevas “is a hero” because he helped four of his children — the 10-year-old boy and three girls, ages 9, 6 and 5 — escape. Cuevas’ fifth child, a 2-year-old boy, was not in the structure at the time of the fire.
The children attend Tahoe Truckee Unified School District schools in Tahoe City, Zaski said, and benefited from recent fire-safety and smoke-detector training given by North Tahoe Fire officials.
“They had recently checked their smoke detector, and they knew to crawl low below the smoke,” Zaski said.
COMMUNITY SUPPORT SWELLS
While the husband and wife were able to save most of their belongings, Cuevas said he lost all his family possessions, including clothing, shoes and just-opened Christmas presents.
Several friends, family members and co-workers have helped with shelter, food and other items the past two days, he said, and the American Red Cross also has chipped in.
Just Monday night, Granlibakken CEO Ron Parson bought new digital tablets for Cuevas’ children — similar tablets, like the rest of the kids’ Christmas gifts, were lost in the fire.
“Ron and all of us are doing everything we can to help ... I mean, they lost everything,” the resort’s marketing manager, Madeline Ross, said Tuesday. “Clothing, toys, anything — especially money and gift cards — are really appreciated, because they can get what they really need.”
Residents wanting to help can drop off clothing, toys and other items for the Cuevases at the front desk at the resort at 725 Granlibakken Road in Tahoe City. Contact Ross at MadelineRoss@granlibakken.com or 530-581-7582 for information.
Donations also can be dropped off at North Tahoe Fire Station 51 at 222 Fairway Drive in Tahoe City. For information, call 530-583-6911, ext. 601.
Granlibakken is donating free housing to both families until they get back on their feet, Ross said, and future fundraisers are in the works.
“I saw the bed was on fire, and I was very scared because my son was in there.”