Calistogans will forever remember 2017 as the year of the horrific Tubbs Fire.
The most destructive of the Napa Valley’s October wildfires started just outside Calistoga on Sunday, Oct. 8. The events that unfolded over the next few weeks made for undoubtedly the biggest, most tragic news story of the year.
Here’s The Weekly Calistogan’s look back at the top stories of 2017.
Within hours, what 12-year-old Victoria Hickman described as “a bright flash of light” outside her bedroom window turned into an uncontrollable fire, with high winds spreading it west from Highway 128 and Bennett Lane to northern Santa Rosa.
People in the fire’s path fled their homes, prompted by a call from a neighbor, the sound of sirens, or an urgent warning from a first responder.
As the fire decimated areas along Petrified Forest Road, Mountain Home Ranch Road, Franz Valley, and the Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park and Fountaingrove neighborhoods, many evacuees took shelter at the Napa County Fairgrounds. However, by Tuesday the smoke was so thick that most of them had left. Some went to stay with family or friends, while others headed to another evacuation center at Napa Valley College in the city of Napa.
Soon the eastern edge of the fire spread to Mount St. Helena and began threatening Calistoga, leading authorities to evacuate the city on Oct. 11. Residents north of Grant Street were rousted from their beds early that morning, and evacuation orders for the rest of the town were issued that afternoon.
By Thursday, Calistoga was an eerie ghost town populated almost entirely by first responders charged with defending the city. The usually upbeat Mayor Chris Canning warned potential gawkers and a handful of remaining stragglers that “Your presence in Calistoga is not welcome” and would only be a distraction to police and firefighters.
Firefighters, engines, helicopters and airplanes from around the country arrived in force, fighting the flames and setting defensive back fires, while Cal Fire bulldozers dug fire breaks. Thanks to a massive firefighting effort, the fire never reached the city limits. Once evacuations were lifted on Oct. 15, grateful residents returned to their homes, while others on the outskirts of town got their first look at what they’d lost.
Most of Calistoga’s grapes had been harvested by the time the fire started, but the power outages, road closures and evacuations disrupted the processing of recently harvested grapes. Once the smoke cleared, local wineries tried to send the message that they were still open for business.
The fire destroyed Bud Pochini’s home and heavily damaged his Christmas tree farm, but it didn’t crush his spirits. He opened the farm after Thanksgiving, to a strong response from locals looking to support their neighbor and celebrate a fire-free Christmas.
Artist Karen Lynn Ingalls lost her studio, which contained many of her paintings, drawings and art supplies. She turned the loss into an artistic statement, augmenting her newest work with the ashes of her old paintings and photos of the ruins.
The Calistoga community rallied with fundraisers and an outpouring of donations for those who’d been affected by the fires, as well as appreciation for the first responders who risked their own safety to protect lives and property.
Meanwhile, the city turned its attention to erosion control, installing straw wattles and check dams to prevent scorched soil from eroding into the city’s water supply at Kimball Dam.
Fairgrounds in flux
The future of the Napa County Fairgrounds is still in question, as officials from the city, county, and Napa County Fair Association await an agreement that would create a nimbler management structure for the county-owned fairgrounds.
As complaints mounted over the condition of the golf course and a dramatically scaled-back county fair, Fair board members said their options were limited by the structure of their lease with the county, which prevented the association from entering into long-term contracts with vendors who could help improve the fairgrounds.
As the year came to a close, Napa County Fair Association members Anne Steinhauer and Nancy Levenberg resigned, as other members anxiously waiting for the Board of Supervisors to review the creation of a Joint Powers Authority that would allow for long-term contracts and finally give the city of Calistoga a voice in the management of one of the community’s most important assets.
Until October, the biggest disruptions to Calistoga life came in the form of two bridge construction projects, one on Lincoln Avenue and another on Berry Street.
This past spring Caltrans began a two-year rehabilitation of the Lincoln Avenue bridge, squeezing traffic into two narrow lanes and prompting the addition of new stop signs on Lincoln at Cedar Street. The new bridge, scheduled to be finished in 2019, will improve the flow of the Napa River and provide a safe crossing for cars, pedestrians and bikes.
The long-awaited replacement of the Berry Street bridge, which had major structural problems, began in July. A temporary pedestrian bridge was installed to accommodate the many kids and other pedestrians who used the old bridge on a regular basis. Once the new bridge is in place in early 2018, the temporary bridge will be moved to the crossing behind the Calistoga Community Center.
Boys & Girls Club opens
The Oct. 7 ribbon-cutting of the new clubhouse for the Calistoga Boys & Girls Club marked the culmination of more than three years of planning, fundraising and construction.
Named after the Napa Valley Vintners, with a gym named after the late philanthropist Vera Trinchero Torres, the 14,000-square-foot facility at 1401 N. Oak St. serves more than 400 Calistoga club members who had been using space at Calistoga Elementary School.
The $10.5 million project was led by Jay Templeton, the club’s former executive director who retired in June but drove down from his home in Washington state to witness the ribbon-cutting.
Construction continued at two major resorts: Calistoga Hills near the corner of Highway 29 and Foothill Boulevard and the old Silver Rose property along Silverado Trail.
Construction at both sites is expected to continue into 2019-2020.
New school superintendent
Esmeralda Mondragon, who had served as superintendent of the Calistoga Joint Unified School District since 2009, retired in June. She was replaced by Erin Smith-Hagberg, formerly superintendent of the Lakeport Unified School District.
Smith-Hagberg set about overseeing repairs to a precarious riverbank that forced the closure the elementary school playground, helping the district refinance its debt, and dealing with the unexpected disruption of classes due to the fires.
Even with minimal marketing outside the city this year, Calistoga’s annual Lighted Tractor Parade drew an estimated 16,000 people on Saturday, Dec. 2.
Some of the biggest cheers were for first responders who had served during the recent fires, including the same Oakland Police Department motorcycle cops who had patrolled Calistoga during the evacuation.
Bridge closures prompted a slightly different route, but the parade will return to its usual route in 2018.
Weekly Calistogan editor Anne Ward Ernst contributed to this article.