Three large wildfires raged through Napa County on Monday, destroying homes, forcing hundreds to evacuate and prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency.
Wind gusts of 35 mph and greater fanned flames during a hellacious Sunday night that gave way to a hellacious Monday. Dozens of homes in the Atlas Peak/Silverado area and at least one in the Carneros area went up in smoke.
By 4:30 p.m. Monday, the state reported the Atlas Fire east of the city of Napa had consumed 25,000 acres and the Partrick Fire west of the city had consumed 3,000 acres. The Tubbs Fire west of Calistoga had consumed 25,000 acres, devastating part of Santa Rosa.
Also at 4:30 p.m. Monday, county spokesman Kevin Lemieux said containment was zero for all three fires. None of the county’s numerous evacuation area orders had been lifted.
Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said the Atlas Fire destroyed more than 50 homes, barns and other structures, though that was an initial estimate.
“This fire developed rapidly,” Biermann said. “When the first units got on scene, it was reported to be 100 acres to 200 acres in the hills of Atlas Peak and it rapidly advanced with the very strong wind on it.”
By 9:30 a.m. Monday, the Atlas Fire had spread several miles from Atlas Peak south to near the Solano County line. People evacuated from such areas as Silverado, Wooden Valley and Coombsville, though emergency officials couldn’t give a number.
On the other side of the city of Napa, the Partrick Road fire moved toward Sonoma County. It destroyed at least one home on Henry Road and prompted more than 200 evacuations from various parts of the Carneros area, including the Carneros Resort & Spa.
Emergency officials said the unusually high winds were a key ingredient to the fire outbreak. Still, why three large fires in different parts of the county starting in a single night?
“I don’t know,” Biermann said. “The causes will be under investigation, for sure. But when we have high winds, it’s not uncommon to have trees that go down … these could bring power lines down. We have very low humidity. It doesn’t take much for anything to cause a fire.”
He called the fire conditions Sunday night “pretty unprecedented for the valley” at this time of year.
“We had very strong gusts,” Biermann said. “It was erratic winds. Once the fires got started, they rapidly developed.”
Queen of the Valley Medical Center canceled elective outpatient procedures Monday after losing power and having to operate on generators. Power was restored by 9 a.m., said Vanessa DeGier, a hospital spokeswoman.
The hospital emergency room treated 50 people for fire-related conditions, including respiratory distress and mostly minor burns, she said. One person had to be evacuated to a regional burn center. Others broke bones in falls during evacuations.
For evacuees, Monday was a stressful day of waiting to find out if their homes had survived the blaze.
Joel Tranmer was eating in downtown Napa around 11 a.m., having been forced to flee his house on the slopes of Mount George. The Atlas Fire swept through that general area on its way toward the Solano County line.
“We don’t know if the house burned or not,” Tranmer said. “They just said the fire is still going.”
He recalled having another house consumed in another monster blaze, the notorious 1981 Atlas Peak Fire that destroyed 65 structures and blackened 23,000 acres. But he had never seen anything like Sunday night and Monday morning, when Napa Valley seemed to be wall-to-wall flames and smoke.
“Even that fire wasn’t anything like this,” Tranmer said.
Jami Laveder, her 87-year-old mother and 15-year-daughter evacuated their small ranch near Hagen Road east of the city of Napa at about 3 a.m. Monday. As they left, they could see the glow of the Atlas Fire less than a mile away.
They ended up at the Napa County Expo because it had plug-in services for their house trailer, as well as room for their 3-month-old calf. They sat outside at 12:30 p.m. Monday under a smokey sky, emergency fire reports blaring over their radio and large ashes occasionally wafting down.
“We know nothing,” Laveder said as they pondered the fate of their house.
She said she has lived there for 47 years. She too recalled the 1981 Atlas Peak Fire, though she didn’t have to evacuate that time. She’d never seen Napa County ablaze as on Monday.
“Absolutely not,” Laveder said. “I’ve never, ever experienced anything like this before.”
Napa Mayor Jill Techel said Monday morning that no homes had burned within the city of Napa. The city has been concerned about the Browns Valley area in the west and the Alta Heights area in the east and had bulldozers helping to put in fire lines.
The city evacuated about 100 homes from Montecito Boulevard and Monte Vista Avenue areas of Alta Heights. People trying to reach local residents by phone should know that cellphone coverage within the city has been very limited, Techel said.
Napa County Sheriff John Robertson at the Monday press conference said Sheriff’s officials went door-to-door Sunday night and Monday morning telling people to evacuate from the fires. They were assisted by officials from the Contra Costa and Solano County sheriff’s offices and the Napa and Fairfield police departments.
“We have areas we could not get to because trees were down and power poles were down, preventing us from going in,” Robertson said. “This was a rapid, rapid fire event. There were some places we just couldn’t get to. We haven’t had any reported injuries yet, so we’re praying for the best.”
Some people were rescued from the Atlas Peak area by helicopter, he said.
Napa County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Belia Ramos said at 3 p.m. Monday that Cal Fire had requested 24 strike teams. Equipment from around the state was coming to the county, she said.
A Cal Fire fire crew strike team has at least 30 firefighters, according to the agency. An engine strike team has five fire engines with three to four firefighters in each engine. On Monday, fire equipment from such places as Los Angeles and Alameda counties could be seen in Napa.
Biermann said the emergency crews on Monday morning had an air attack to help try to control the fires, though he didn’t say how many air tankers were available. Air resources will be prioritized among the multiple fires in the area, he said.
He stressed the importance of the firefighting aircraft.
“As of right now, with these conditions, we can’t get in front of this (Atlas) fire and do anything about its forward progress,” he said during the morning press conference.
While the Tubbs Fire started outside Calistoga near Bennett Lane, it moved west into Santa Rosa in Sonoma County where it did its major damage, leveling businesses and residential areas.
No evacuations were called for in Calistoga, but the Napa County Fairgrounds served as a shelter for Upvalley residents.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said Napa County faced a “tragic situation.”
Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, called Monday “a really devastating day.” On behalf of the Assembly speaker, she said the state will do whatever it can so people can put their lives back together.
Gov. Brown’s state of emergency declaration covers Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties because of multiple fires in the area.
Weekly Calistogan editor Anne Ward Ernst contributed to this story.
Dozens of expensive homes in an east Napa neighborhood were torched in a rapidly moving wildfire Sunday night just hours after a golf tournament at the adjacent Silverado Resort came to a close.
Power lines were down, utility poles were still on fire and county employees cleared debris from the mostly deserted Atlas Peak Road, near the epicenter of Sunday night’s fire that had grown to 25,000 acres by Monday afternoon.
Among the devastation sat Shawn Sullivan attempting to get cell phone service north of Silverado Resort and Spa while sitting in a “borrowed” golf cart. The day before, the Connecticut man had been volunteering at Safeway Open, a PGA golf tournament held annually in Napa. Sullivan, a self-proclaimed golf fan, is a member of the country club and has a condo there, which he stays in about three months of the year.
“I’ve never been in a wildfire before in my life,” he said. “You see ‘em on TV back East … (but) don’t realize the quickness of how these things spread.”
Sullivan was one of the few residents in the condos to stay put on Sunday night.
“It was pretty scary. When it started coming down over the mountain at maybe one in the morning, all these really expensive homes along West Gate Drive started to get engulfed in flames,” Sullivan said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
When he went to bed at about 4:30 a.m., he said he crossed his fingers and hoped for the best. At 7 a.m., he and his condo were still there, along with the rest of his neighborhood.
There were about seven or eight abandoned golf carts – one still had its key in the ignition. With nothing else to do, Sullivan took the golf cart and drove around the neighborhood with two 5-gallon Home Depot buckets filled with water, putting out any embers he saw.
Sullivan tried to contact friends who had been staying with him – one was due to fly back to Connecticut, another to Las Vegas, and Sullivan still had their belongings.
“I can’t get a hold of anybody,” he said. He didn’t want to leave the damaged area, he said, because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get back in. Roads across the county, including Monticello Road at Vichy Avenue, were closed.
Back at the resort, everything that was left from last week’s golf tournament remained, but was in disarray. Banners had been blown down along with several giant letters next to the green that had spelled out “Safeway Open.” The resort was evacuated Sunday night, spokesmen said.
Just outside the course, wearing a backpack and holding a water bottle, Napa resident Brad Turley walked toward his home on Alta Mesa Circle. Turley said he evacuated the neighborhood at about 9:30 p.m. Sunday. He later saw his neighbor’s house burning in some TV news footage and had no idea what to expect when he returned home.
“It’s hard to assess what’s going on here because fire jumps around a lot,” he said. Some homes completely burned while others in the same neighborhoods seemed to be untouched.
Mark Hyatt, owner of Cut-Rite Tree Service, was one of those lucky homeowners.
“I live up there and still do, amazingly,” Hyatt said, standing next to his toasted truck on Mount George Avenue just south of Sparlin Lane. Hyatt said he was surprised the old wooden house he grew up in, which is surrounded by dried brush and trees, survived.
“It’s an absolute miracle,” he said.
After his neighbors woke him up at about 10:30 Sunday night, Hyatt said the fire hadn’t made it to the south side of Monticello Road yet, so he started to prepare some things. Then he went back to bed.
“I didn’t think it would be that bad,” he said. By 1:30 a.m., though, the hill had been engulfed and the fire was coming over the ridge.
“Frantically, I grabbed my seven cats, put them in a truck and parked down here,” Hyatt said. The flames seemed to be 100 feet high, he said, as they roared down the hill.
Hyatt had tried to park the rest of his vehicles in a clearing south of his house before driving away with his felines, but one truck didn’t make it.
Hyatt assessed his truck’s damage Monday morning. His tires appeared to be melting into the road, and the wood it stored was still flickering.
“It looks like it might still run,” he said, hopeful.
The neighbor’s house he was parked in front of was gone, except for a fire place, two front walls holding window frames, a swimming pool, a Halloween pumpkin and some sunflowers. The neighbor had just finished getting his garden exactly the way he wanted it, Hyatt said.
“I thought this would be safe here,” he said. “I guess – with the embers – nothing is safe.”
Although his home remained intact, there is no water or electricity, Hyatt said.
“I should’ve saw this coming because it’s been so hot and dry,” he said. “The wind was just crazy – blowing in all different directions.”
Hyatt’s other neighbor, Silva Carr, wasn’t as lucky. Her home burned completely.
“You know what I wish I kept – the kids’ artwork,” Carr said Monday morning as she perused through the ashes looking for anything she could hold onto, anything she could salvage.
Like everything else, though, they’re just things, she said. “They can make more artwork.”
Embers were falling as she and her family fled their home Sunday night, Carr said. Firefighters headed towards the fire into clouds of smoke and dust with flashlights, knocking on doors, she said. They were “amazing,” she said.
Her children – ages 8 and 10 – were scared, but they were OK, she said. They grabbed a few stuffed animals before piling into car and heading to Carr’s mother’s house in north Napa.
“I see it as a life-toughening experience for them,” she said. If this fire is the worst thing that ever happens to her kids, then that’s not too bad, she said.
“We’re thankful everyone’s OK,” she said as she collected the few garden items that hadn’t burned – a wind chime and two angel statues.
“Might as well take the angels,” she said, still in shock. “Hopefully there’s a silver lining to all this."
CrossWalk Church on First Street became the temporary home early Monday morning to at least 300 people who evacuated from the torrential fires raging around Napa.
The Gennets, who were sitting outside of the center with their two dogs at 3:45 a.m., said they were asleep when they first received a phone call earlier in the night. Thinking it was someone asking for money for the Fire Department, Peter Gennet hung up. Then a second call came and they were told they should evacuate.
But scanning the news online and seeing only reports for the fire on Atlas Peak, Peter Gennet thought the caller had made a mistake. “But I went outside and I saw this orange glow behind our house and I knew that wasn’t Atlas Peak,” he said.
Nearby, just before 4 a.m., Andrew Eugenio was standing among the crowd of volunteers waiting for a trailer laden with cots to be opened.
Eugenio, who owns Celebrity Haven, a boarding care home for the elderly, said the home, located off of Highway 12 in Carneros, near the Napa–Sonoma county line, had been evacuated and most of its residents had come to the center while others who needed special care had made their way to Queen of the Valley Medical Center.
Eugenio said at that point in the morning, he had checked in with all of his residents. “Everyone’s doing fine.”
Ambulances were parked near the entrance of the church, where a check-in point had been established for evacuees. Those not occupying the grid of cots inside the church, milled about, passing in and out of the building, talking on cellphones or sitting with their pets, which were not allowed inside the building per Red Cross policy.
John Campbell was one of those sitting outside near the entrance of the center with his dog by his side.
Escaping his home without a shirt around 1:30 a.m., Campbell recounted: “I woke up to an orange glow and was surrounded by flames … It was right there. I could feel the heat of it.”
That was why, he said, he was afraid that his Sonoma County home near Stornetta’s Dairy “is probably long gone at this point … It was a conflagration,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”
Indeed, a passerby later reported the old Stornetta’s property was in flames.
Campbell had been given a shirt by another man at the center. “So people are helping one another,” he said, having offered a spare leash himself to someone who had two dogs but only one leash.
“I’m just hoping that everybody’s OK,” Campbell said. “I’m hoping our neighbors got out OK. I laid on the horn as I went by their house, but the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see whether there were lights on or what was happening there. But we had to go.”
Because he could not bring his dog into the space prepared with cots, Campbell said the pair would likely sleep in his truck.
Standing nearby, in front of the entrance to the center, Tom Dowse recalled his evening, which culminated in evacuating with his wife, son, daughter-in-law, two grandchildren and three dogs from their Coombsville home, where they could see the light from the fire to the north of their home.
Dowse said one of the dogs became noticeably nervous around midnight. “I let him out. He came back ... and he was all agitated. I told him to just calm down and went back to bed.”
Then, around 1:30 a.m., Dowse’s son said he had received a call from a friend about the fires and that the family needed to evacuate. “First I was skeptical of the whole idea,” Dowse said. “But I went outside and … you couldn’t see the fire, but you could see the little bit of light. And we could smell the smoke and so we decided to evacuate.”
Dowse said when the family left, the home still had power. “We took two cars,” he said. “We left everything else there.”
“I lived out there for 26 years and never experienced anything like this.”
Among the early evacuees were Alejandra Alfonzo and five members of her family, who were visiting from Florida. The family had been visiting nearby wineries and had just returned to the Silverado Resort and Spa as the fire was approaching.
“We were trying to get to the room and the fire was very close,” Alfonzo said. “Everyone was leaving; the hotel was already empty. Half the staff was gone when we arrived.”
Alfonzo said she and her family had to leave their luggage and escape in their van as flames came within one-fifth of a mile of the resort. “Our IDs are still there; I don’t know how we’ll fly back if the hotel burns,” she said.
Alfonzo said that power at the resort had also failed while the family was there.
While escaping, the family picked up Debbie DeLanoy, another tourist, and brought her to the evacuation center.
DeLanoy said she and her boyfriend were visiting the area from Las Vegas and were staying in an Airbnb rental on Westgate Drive near Atlas Peak Road. The couple arrived at around 7 p.m. Sunday, she said.
“My boyfriend went walking just for fun,” DeLanoy said, “and I got a text message saying, ‘Get out of there now. Look out the back door. There’s a fire.’ And I saw the place next door torching up. I left with my medicines and his backpack.”
A steady bustle of volunteers revolved in and out of the building throughout the early morning hours, helping to unload and set up more cots from trailers that had been brought in and offering food and water for evacuees’ pets, which had been delivered by the Napa County Animal Shelter earlier that morning.
Icela Martin was among the orange-vested volunteers at the booth inside the center, helping check evacuees in.
“They come in waves,” Martin said, as evacuations were taking place across multiple regions. “Some are shaken, some are smiling. They’re being very positive. So I don’t see anyone being rude. So, very vulnerable. And so we just kind of embrace that. And I’ve given a couple hugs today, so that’s all we can be. We can be the good neighbor.”
“People are coming together,” Peter Gennet said. Describing the scene inside, he quipped, “It looks like what you would see in the news somewhere else. Not in Napa.”
Standing near his family’s car in the parking lot of the evacuation center around 4:30 a.m., was James Bell, a senior at Justin-Siena high school.
The family’s ordeal began when they lost power at their home off of Monticello Road near Silverado Resort and Spa at around 10 p.m., Bell said. “And I went outside to see if any of the other neighbors were there and immediately I could smell smoke. And if you looked up, you could see the whole sky was like orange.”
Bell and his brother went to investigate and “there we just saw a whole hill was on fire,” he said.
As for the set-up of the center itself, Bell said, “It’s actually pretty good … just the Red Cross has been amazing.”
He added, “Hopefully our house isn’t burnt tomorrow. Hopefully we can go home tomorrow.”
Reporter Howard Yune contributed to this story.
On Monday, the Starbucks café at South Napa Marketplace was packed from the cash register inside to the patio outside. But the lattes were not the main reason for the packed house – as the smoke-fouled air and the smartphones on every ear made clear.
One man vainly sought word from his daughters in Sonoma, having been diverted to Napa on the last leg of a trip home from Mexico. A woman texted her two children in North Carolina to reassure them their parents were safe in Napa, though without power to the house. And Phillip Busick had driven all the way down from his home outside St. Helena simply to find someplace, any place, with a working Wi-Fi connection – to check on his friends from Justin-Siena High School whose cell connections were as dead as his own.
“I saw the fire as it broke out at 10 last night,” he said between thumbing out phone messages. “I live on the crest of a hill, and when the power went out, I saw it ignite on Atlas Peak.”
As the line inside the Soscol Avenue café extended to the front door, Busick was one of the dozens of people stopping by the tables and chairs in front, all within the router’s reach. After tracking down his acquaintances, he hoped to offer rides to those needing them, get supplies of water to others – or even invite a guest to temporarily crash at his home Upvalley.
“I came here because I have a lot of friends to check on, to see if they’re OK,” he said. “A few of my friends have been evacuated – some from the (Coombsville) avenues, one from Browns Valley, and another friend had to leave Calistoga.”
The handful of businesses whose electricity and Internet connections were intact proved invaluable in a city where large swaths, especially in the north, remained blacked out more than 12 hours after the fires erupted. Elsewhere, groceries and shops along north Soscol Avenue and Trancas Street remained mostly dark, traffic signals were out of service, and parking lots empty.
Even for some at the Starbucks with a working phone connection, the slow trickle of information sometimes exasperated people.
“We’ve evacuated; my parents and I split up,” said a testy Ana Gibert of her family’s departure from the fire-threatened Silverado Highlands at 11 p.m. Sunday. “It’s a disaster; we don’t even know where the fires are. We’ve been to the (CrossWalk Community Church) shelter; I’ve been to the Sheriff’s Office, and no one knows anything. Now I can’t get to my family, and my dad doesn’t even know if there’s fires in the highlands because we can’t get up there now.”
With news updates slow to reach her phone, Gibert, a photographer, settled for WhatsApp calls and texts to reach a brother in Los Angeles, and snatches of TV broadcasts at a nearby Denny’s. Otherwise, she was left with little but her camera, computer, passport and uncertainty.
“My parents know people who lost their homes,” she said. “I hope they didn’t lose theirs.”
In the parking lot overlooking the Starbucks were more than a dozen RVs. According to one of the owners, James DiLienzo, most of the motor homes and trailers belonged to families living around Napa, who turned to their vacation vehicles for shelter as evacuation orders multiplied with the flames.
“We got back from Mount George and we saw four or five houses burn at the end,” he said, standing outside his Ford pickup truck and its attached Airstream camper. “The smoke at our house was so bad; I came here because of the smoke. When I got here about 3:30 there four trailers in the lot. When I woke up, there were 40.”
DiLienzo’s story would have a safe ending: ‘We’ve checked the house; we’re fine.”
On the opposite side of the shopping center, couples and families – many wearing dust masks – emerged from Target with red carts stuffed with canned goods, drinks, clothing and diapers. In nearly every cart were bottles of water, chest-wide blister packs of bottled water.
The water packs were a hedge for Laura Kelley-Weakley, in case power outages stalled the well pump at her family’s home on Milton Road, which the Justin-Siena English teacher had left overnight but planned to check on. For news of her friends, she had already made one stop – to little effect.
“Had to drive to the airport to get a cell signal so I could touch base with my neighbors … who, it turned out, don’t have any service, so I couldn’t get hold of them anyway,” she said with a slight chuckle.
Kelley-Weakley planned to make another go at finding a signal or a Wi-Fi connection, this time for word of her students. “A lot of them are up in the hills,” she said.
As Napa locals sought food, water and a signal, much of the downtown district appeared as quiet and empty as on a national holiday. Traffic on First Street remained thin even at midday, and the storefronts were pocked with the darkened windows of businesses that, by choice or circumstance, had stayed closed – Anette’s Chocolates, Small World, the Bounty Hunter restaurant and various wine tasting lounges, among others.
Plenty of tables were available inside Tarla’s restaurant, as its owner had predicted – but he saw opening it as a public service of sorts.
“We have power, so we decided to keep it open to support the locals. A lot of them have no power,” said Yusuf Topal inside the eatery, which also was offering free delivery service. Behind him, a handful of customers took up a half-dozen tables inside – and one on the sidewalk, despite sticky afternoon air that smelled of fireplace dregs, with ashes to match.
Steps away from Tarla, guests at the Andaz hotel had vacated about 60 rooms since the fires had erupted the night before, according to general manager Jeffrey Miller. But the hotel remained full as Andaz staff took in mostly Napa residents – many of them evacuees – at reduced rates, he said.
In the hotel lobby, Steve Metzler, his wife and two friends checked in, evacuees during their own vacation after leaving behind a fire-menaced house rental in Glen Ellen in Sonoma County.
“Definitely not what we expected on vacation,” said Metzler, who with his group was visiting from Green Bay, Wisconsin. “Been here four times and I’d love to come back, but we didn’t know what we were in for, that’s for sure.”
Spirits soon lifted, however, when a hotel employee arrived with four glasses of chardonnay. “We made it! We’re alive,” they quipped to one another, clinking glasses.
One downtown eatery managed to keep most of the buzz of a normal, safe midday – even if the television facing the front door carried an endless loop of combusting forests and burned-out buildings from around the North Bay.
“It’s a ‘holiday’ Monday; what do you expect?” said Jon Crane, manager of Norman Rose Tavern on First Street, where nearly every table was accounted for at lunch. The restaurant phone began ringing with reservation calls just after 9:30, nearly two hours before the opening.
“A lot of places closed, including wineries,” he said. “So they’re basically sheltering in place and we’re still here – what can you say?”