For nearly two weeks, there were no sports in the Napa Valley. No practices, no team meetings, nothing.
For high school sports, it coincided with school closures. At one point, Robert Pinoli, commissioner of the Coastal Mountain Conference, provided an easy guideline for athletic programs to follow: if there’s no school, there’s no games. Sports were firmly on the backseat, and none of us resisted it.
The first week of the North Bay Fires was truly surreal. Tens of thousands of acres burned to the ground overnight. Those that were fortunate enough to have a window of escape were afforded a minute or two to grab government-issued IDs and their loved ones on the way out the door.
Some were lucky enough to survive. Others were not.
For multiple days, most of the North Bay Area was in the dark. People had no power and no cell service, which meant communication with the outside world was nearly nonexistent. Many adapted by seeking out public hotspots and coffee shops to get some sort of access. Those with the means fled the area altogether.
Thousands of structures and buildings were reduced to ash. On Tuesday, Cal Fire said 569 homes in Napa County had been lost.
It was a grim moment in time, one that initially seemed like it might never end. It was apocalyptic. Everyone was wearing masks. At all hours you could see people loading up their cars, preparing to evacuate like they might never be coming back.
In the Register newsroom, it was all hands on deck. It was stressful, it was hectic, and it tested our intestinal fortitudes. Residents in our backyard and beyond were locked in on every sentence we published because, for many, it was a matter of life and death. But I’m extremely proud of the work we did and are continuing to do in the aftermath.
I’ve had a lot of people crack jokes about how I spent the past two weeks without any games to cover, like I was sipping rum out of coconuts on a beach somewhere while wine country burned. Granted, I know they’re made in jest, but make no mistake, I was in the thick of it every single day – some, clocking overtime – doing everything I could to inform the public.
I picked up multiple assignments for the news team. One night I was up ‘til 2 a.m. parsing out every nugget of vital information I could from a public meeting at City Hall in Napa. I sensed the fear and saw the frustration as residents from every walk of life anxiously packed the room that night, wondering when the nightmare might be over. On the drive home, I watched Atlas Peak burn as I rode across the bridge over the Napa River.
By late last week, it seemed like we turned a corner. The air was suddenly breathable again and we quickly latched onto any semblance of normalcy.
On Tuesday, I was covering games in St. Helena again. Middletown, a community that was ravaged by wildfires of their own just two years ago, was now in a position to provide support with the roles reversed. Before the boys and girls soccer games, they called the Saints out to the middle of the field for an extended moment of silence. Inside the gym, the two volleyball matches were dedicated to the heroic first responders that guarded the population from even greater catastrophe.
It was a chance for local supporters to get together and focus on something else. At times, however, it still didn’t feel right because it seemed like we were the lucky ones. We were the ones that didn’t lose our lives or our homes. Of course, most of us personally know those who did and we’ve been providing whatever support we can, but it still felt like it was too soon.
Then again, when is the right time to start all of this back up?
So as I go back and forth on this, I’m reminded of something multiple coaches said to me while everything was at a standstill. It’s about the unspoken power of sports, and their ability to unify and provide an escape from a harsher reality outside them. For young athletes, that’s huge.
The Saints varsity volleyball team, for example, might not have gotten the outcome it wanted, going down 3-1 in a rough return to the court. But it was an outcome, nonetheless, and that means elements of regular life are coming back into the fold and we’re steadily making progress toward normal.
Although, some rum on the beach would be really nice right now.