A couple hundred people who lost their homes in the Atlas Fire attended a Monday meeting to learn about the realities of rebuilding.
They can’t simply start putting up framing once their burned-out home debris has been hauled to a landfill. They must figure out what laws apply to their particular situation and obtain county permits. Their projects must meet today’s codes, with such requirements as indoor fire sprinklers.
Napa County officials said the county has hired a firm to review plans for fire rebuilding projects. Applicants who have all their paperwork together can obtain rebuild permits in a week or two. That compares to two to four weeks for a normal project.
“If it takes you a while to build your house, it won’t be because of the county,” county Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison told the crowd.
County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza hosted the rebuilding workshop at the Silverado Resort and Spa. The Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns fires in October destroyed 611 Napa County homes and damaged 94 others, most of them in the Silverado-Atlas Peak-Soda Canyon area.
Ellen Amador and her daughter, Cynthia Amador-Beck, were among those attending. They lived in separate, rural homes on the same Hardman Avenue property and both burned down the night of Oct. 8 in the Atlas fire. Ellen Amador showed photos on her smartphone of her house engulfed in flames.
Also on the night of Oct. 8, Ellen Amador’s other daughter fled for her life from the Tubbs Fire that rushed down Mark West Springs Road in Sonoma County.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors cleared the two adjacent Hardman Avenue home sites of burn debris, though Ellen Amador said workers damaged her septic tank. She and Cynthia Amador-Beck don’t intend to rebuild copy homes. Rather, they will install modular homes on foundations.
“I’m too old to start to get contractors and everyone else,” said Ellen Amador, who lost the home she and her late husband built in 1975.
She hopes the two new homes will be installed in July or August.
“We’ve already picked out the new houses,” Ellen Amador said. “We’ve already picked out the insides.”
They came to the meeting to learn about what rules might apply to their rebuilding project, such as new laws on driveway access for emergency vehicles.
Morrison told the crowd he is amazed how much recovery work has been done in the 15 weeks since the fires broke out.
For the Atlas Fire, 75 percent of the destroyed homes have been cleared by the Army Corps, Morrison said. Fifty percent of these sites have had their soil declared clean and are ready for rebuilding.
Residents who build a similar-sized home will have the easiest path to obtaining rebuild permits. Even these rebuilt homes will have to meet up-to-date state building codes for energy, water use and other items.
One audience member told county officials he’s been in Napa County since 1978 and experienced three fires. It seems like every 10 years the brush builds up in the hills and causes fire problems.
“I would expect in another 10 years, if there’s no maintenance in the hills, there’s another (fire) that’s going to come down, whether it’s caused by PG&E or something else,” he said.
County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said Cal Fire is aggressively looking at vegetation management and fire prevention. But fire officials can’t just clear hillsides and set control burns. They must look at risks, work within environmental laws and work with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
He encouraged rural residents to keep reducing vegetation within 100 feet of their house to create defensible space.
“We need to build a defensible home that can stand alone without a fire engine being there,” Biermann said. “For years, it was so hard for everyone out there to understand, ‘How can a fire engine not be here?’ Well, we just saw that. When we were overwhelmed by a rapidly advancing fire, we didn’t have enough resources and then the rest of the state started burning.”
Defensible space works, Biermann said.
“Don’t give up just because this fire happened and some people had hundreds of feet of clearance and their homes still burned down,” he said. “That’s not the normal fire. The rest of the time it works. It saves homes and lives every week in this state.”
Assessor John Tuteur said the county lowered the property tax bills for people who lost their homes in the wildfires. But the house structure value doesn’t go to zero for the latest bills because the tax year began in July and the fires happened in October.
“They had the use of their house for the first quarter of the tax year,” Tuteur said.
A property assessed at $500,000 that suffered a total loss would have a hybrid of pre-fire and post-fire values for structure and land in 2017-18. What would normally be a $5,000 tax bill could drop to $2,225.
Fire victims who missed the forum have another chance. County Supervisors Diane Dillon and Ryan Gregory will host a rebuilding forum at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Enchanted Hills Camp, 3140 Mount Veeder Road.
Some 70 jobs at Napa’s Treasury Wine Estates will be moving to new offices in Oakland as soon as this August.
Treasury Wine Estates currently has about 250 employees at its Gateway Drive location in Napa, said company spokesman Brent Dodd.
“As we move from an agriculture business to a brand-led business,” and to support the growth of the company, the majority of employees working on the commercial side of the business will be relocated from Napa to Oakland, he said.
Jobs that will move include sales, marketing and some human resources and information technology positions, he said.
Napa’s Treasure Wine Estates offices will remain open, he said.
Employees who support direct-to-consumer efforts, such as tasting rooms, and the supply side of the business are not moving, he said.
Treasury Wine Estates has seven tasting rooms in Napa and Sonoma – Chateau St. Jean, Beaulieu Vineyard, Stags’ Leap Winery, Beringer Vineyards, Sterling Vineyards, Etude Wines and Provenance Vineyards.
Some functions that support that side of the business, such as e-commerce and wine clubs, will also remain in Napa, he added.
“We have built a strong foundation in Napa offices and will continue to uphold our footprint in the Napa region,” said Dodd.
The new Oakland office will be home to about 130 employees total, he said. “We have ambitious goals to fill that side of the business” in Oakland, he said.
This is an opportunity to create a new footprint in Oakland, said Dodd. “It’s about creating a larger talent pool and allowing more flexibility for employees based on where they work and live.”
Dodd said he wasn’t sure of the exact number but some of those 70 employees are already commuting from the greater Bay Area to Napa.
Treasury’s Napa employees shouldn’t be entirely surprised by the move, said Dodd.
About five months ago, the then-president of Treasury Wine Estates indicated such a change. This past November, incoming Treasury Wine Estates president Robert Foye shared information about the opening of a second Bay Area office.
“The majority of employees across the business are excited about this opportunity,” Dodd said.
Treasury’s Napa office is currently located at 555 Gateway Drive near the Napa County Airport. The company moved to that location in April 2016 after running out of space at its former location nearby.
Treasury’s Oakland staffers are currently working at temporary office space at 300 Lakeside Drive in the Kaiser building near Lake Merritt, said Dodd. The permanent offices in Oakland will be located on the 25th floor of that same building.
Local water officials say they think the estimated $600 million cost for a new Delta water pumping location serving communities in Napa and Solano counties is too steep for ratepayers to bear.
But water officials aren’t giving up on a new North Bay Aqueduct pump site. Rather, they want to create a modified project that serves nature as well as residents in such cities as Napa, Calistoga and American Canyon.
“In order to attract state and federal money, this thing has to have more benefits than simply benefiting municipal water users,” Solano County Water Agency General Manager Roland Sanford said.
The two counties are dissatisfied with the present pumping location in dead-end Barker Slough in eastern Solano County, given that the slough after heavy rains is prone to bad-quality, costly-to-treat water. They’d rather pump water from the Sacramento River south of Sacramento.
Release of a state Department of Water Resources draft environmental report for the project has been delayed. A Solano County Water Agency (SCWA) memo called this turn of events “fortuitous,” adding the project as originally envisioned is “essentially dead on arrival.”
Participating cities agree that, unless alternative funding can be found for at least half, and more likely at least two-thirds, of construction costs, the project is unaffordable, a SCWA memo said. A project that also benefits wildlife habitat could attract that money.
The North Bay Alternative Intake Project involves building a 25-mile-long pipeline from the Sacramento River through rural Solano County to Fairfield and the existing North Bay Aqueduct pipes. The emerging goal is to find some environmental uses for that water along its journey.
Perhaps a new North Bay Aqueduct pipe could deliver water to help habitat in the Yolo Bypass or the Cache Slough area of eastern Solano County, a SCWA memo said. Or it could deliver water to Delta farms that would no longer have to take water out of Cache Slough for irrigation, thus helping the aquatic habitat there.
Finding out the best option will take more research and more time. Sanford said that, if a multi-purpose project can be identified, work on a revised environmental impact report could begin in mid-to-late 2019.
The North Bay Aqueduct was part of the State Water Project planning in the 1950s and 1960. It was completed in 1988 and provides Delta water from Barker Slough near Highway 113 to Fairfield, Vacaville, Vallejo, Benicia, American Canyon, Napa and Calistoga.
State reports dating to the 1990s looked at water quality at Barker Slough. They found water draining from farm and grazing land has increased organic matter and increased turbidity from soil erosion, making it difficult and costly to treat to meet drinking water standards.
“Particularly in the winter, it’s very challenging,” city of Napa Water General Manager Joy Eldredge said. “When the storms hit, we call it ‘first flush.’ There’s all the organics that are lying around on the ground that have broken down during the year. They break down and wash into the creeks and streams.”
Delta smelt and other rare fish pose another challenge, especially with state and federal proposals to improve fish habitat in the Barker Slough region. This raises the potential that Barker Slough pumping could face periodic restrictions to avoid sucking up rare fish.
The city of Napa doesn’t depend solely on the North Bay Aqueduct and Delta water. Much of the city’s water comes from local Lake Hennessey and Milliken Reservoir, giving the city flexibility.
But American Canyon relies on the North Bay Aqueduct for its water and has no local reservoirs.
American Canyon Water Systems Manager Steve Moore agreed the dissolved organic carbons are a bigger problem when rains and runoff are plentiful. Treating the water with more chlorine can result in elevated levels of trihalomethanes.
The disinfectant byproduct with prolonged exposure can cause health problems such as increased cancer risk, according to government warnings. In April 2013, American Canyon had a bout with elevated levels that city officials said didn’t pose a health danger.
Also, American Canyon residents have at times complained about the smell and taste of their water in the summer. City officials said the mix of salt and fresh water in the Delta can get out of balance, causing algae in Barker Slough. Subsequent water treatment can’t remove all of the effects, though the water is safe to drink.
Pumping water from the Sacramento River would solve these problems.
“It would be desirable,” Moore said. “It is an important project, and right now we’re on board to keep it moving forward.”
The state held preliminary community meetings on the proposed North Bay Aqueduct Alternate Intake Project in 2009 and had been scheduled to release the draft environmental impact report in 2016. A SCWA memo attributed delays to Department of Water Resources leadership changes and state’s need to concentrate on the Oroville Dam emergency and other priorities.
Caltrans is being sued for negligence for its alleged role in causing the fatal bicycle wreck that killed a 52-year-old Napa Valley man last year.
On Feb. 14, Matthew James Newman was riding his bicycle along southbound Highway 29 south of Whitehall Lane, where the train tracks cross the highway, when he crashed on his bicycle, injuring his head, according to California Highway Patrol. Newman, who was not wearing a helmet, died from his injuries the next day.
His family is alleging that had the bike route been maintained and/or clearly marked, Newman would not have died.
The family’s attorney, Bill Johnson of Bennett & Johnson, LLP in Oakland, said that, although there were no witnesses, there is evidence to support their allegations that Newman fell off his bicycle while riding across railroad tracks that were not properly marked when his tire got trapped in the flangeway and he was thrown from his bicycle. At the time, he said, there were two paths Newman could have taken but one still looked like it was being constructed.
“It was ambiguous and confusing which route he was supposed to take,” Johnson said. “If you didn’t make the right decision, you were in peril.”
The old route crossed the railroad tracks at a very severe angle, dangerous to bicyclists, he said. But, having ridden that route years ago, that’s the route Newman took. He should have gotten off his bike and walked across the tracks, but there weren’t any signs telling him to do so, Johnson said.
It was not clear whether the new route, which had bicyclists cross the tracks at a safer angle, was open yet, Johnson said.
“The claim is against Caltrans for their negligence in the way that they constructed this and designed it without having proper signage and warning,” Johnson said. “The old tracks had signs up – ‘get off your bicycle and walk across’ – but when they started to reconstruct it, they took these signs down.”
“Before it was a dangerous condition but there were signs telling bicyclists to get off their bikes,” Johnson said.
The family — Newman’s widow, Maria Newman, adult child Alexandra Finuf-Newman, and his and Maria’s minor daughter — are suing Caltrans as well as Ghilotti Brothers Construction in San Rafael for damages in excess of $25,000, citing negligence and dangerous condition of public property, according to the suit filed in Napa County Superior Court last week. The complaint includes a demand for a jury trial.
Neither Caltrans nor Ghilotti Brothers Construction was available for comment on Tuesday.
Johnson said that it isn’t clear what part the construction company played in the negligence, but he believes they were doing work on the new bike path at the time of the incident.
Caltrans and Ghilotti Brothers Construction should have known of the unsafe conditions, the suit alleges, and could have prevented Newman’s death by taking appropriate measures to correct and/or warn bicyclists of the dangerous conditions.
A case management conference is scheduled for June 26.