Napa County’s big wildfire clean-up effort to remove the ashen remains of more than 500 burned-out homes is hitting the road.
Those who lost homes can either let the government haul away the debris or do the job themselves. George Porter decided he’d do it himself and as soon as possible.
“I don’t make a good victim,” Porter said. “I needed to take control of things.”
On Monday, a work crew from Krueger Bros. and Deming’s Demolition readied the cinders of Porter’s house to be trucked to Clover Flat Landfill near Calistoga in coming days.
The Atlas Fire turned Porter’s house from a multi-million-dollar Silverado stunner into wreckage. An 18-foot-tall stone arch that had been an entry feature to luxury now leads to an ash pit.
The Atlas Fire broke out the night of Oct. 8 and swept south toward Silverado. Porter and his wife, Kali, evacuated their house as the fire descended a nearby hill, a sight he compares to a thousand people with flamethrowers advancing.
But they didn’t know their home’s fate until the next day. Kali Porter saw the house burning on television, with the flames framed by the stone arch.
That arch proved a visual magnet to other media, as well.
“The house was the one that was like the poster child for the Napa fire on television,” George Porter said. “It was everywhere. It was in the Wall Street Journal. I had friends calling me from all over the world.”
On Monday, the stone arch finally came down, felled by the jaws of a bulldozer. It was no longer structurally sound and had to be removed anyway to make room for the big, debris-hauling equipment.
“I never thought I’d be witnessing something like this,” Kali Porter said as she stood on the front street watching. “It’s totally surreal.”
The Porters will live in a Silverado condominium while they watch a new house go up over the next two years or so. They are having an architect create a new floor plan.
One decision is whether to recreate that arch or forget about it, given how its image became tied to the fire.
“We don’t know yet,” George Porter said. “We have to really think a lot about that.”
He’s hoping other people will shake off the shock of loss and move quickly to rebuild. It’s important Napa begin to recover, he said.
Krueger Bros. and Deming’s Demolition must follow various rules when removing the debris of Porter’s house. They can’t simply show up and start scooping ash into a dump truck.
Contractors must file plans for dust control and storm water pollution prevention with the county. They must wet the ash and contain it within a tarp – using what county guidelines call the “burrito wrap method”—before transportation.
A lot of debris burrito wraps will be on the road in coming weeks and months, between private cleanup efforts such as the Porters’ and the government cleanup program.
Napa County reported Friday that six people had received private demolition permits and 209 people had filed for the government program. The deadline to apply for the government program is 5 p.m. Thursday.
The government program is overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. People sign right-of-entry forms and give the government any insurance coverage for debris removal. The government does the removal at no cost to them, no matter what the insurance situation.
Corps spokeswoman Nancy Allen said crews are already doing site assessments and sorting debris into different piles for cleanup. For example, metal can be recycled.
The government is using the Burlingame-based company ECC to remove debris from wildfire-ravaged homes in Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. Allen said it has yet to announce a contractor for Sonoma County.
Hauling off debris in Napa, Mendocino, Lake and Sonoma counties could cost about $250 million, she said. The Corps will try to give 24-hour to 48-hour notice to homeowners before removing their debris.
FEMA officials have said the government cleanup program in Napa County could finish early next year, depending on the weather.
The Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs wildfires have created a demand for landfill space. They destroyed more than 7,000 structures – most in Sonoma County – and all of that waste has to go somewhere.
Some of it will go to the Clover Flat Landfill near Calistoga. But Clover Flat likely won’t be the final resting place for all of the thousands of burned-out homes in the region.
“We’re a very small landfill,” General Manager Bryce Howard said.
The landfill in a canyon off Silverado Trail is allowed to receive up to 600 tons of waste daily. Howard said it already receives about 200 tons daily as it serves the upper Napa Valley communities.
“We’re willing to take another 200 tons daily, so we’re doubling the amount we take in,” Howard said.
It’s a balancing act between serving the routine needs of the local community and the needs of the emergency. Though the landfill has an estimated lifespan of 30 years under normal conditions, Howard said it has about five years of space prepared for the immediate future.
Clover Flat is receiving inquiries from private contractors who want to dispose of debris from homes destroyed by wildfire, Howard said. As of Friday, he hadn’t heard from the government.
The landfill could seek to have its 600-tons-per-day limit waived to deal with an emergency. Howard said he has yet to see the debris-disposal requests to warrant this step and thinks other landfills in the region—some much bigger—will also be taking debris.
Allen said Monday she didn’t know what landfills will be used for the government debris-hauling program.
Growers won’t be able to fully assess vineyard damage from the October fires until next growing season. But they say that in many instances the vines served as a fire break, halting the flames’ progress.
“I don’t think there’s a question,” said Jim Regusci, who farms more than 3,000 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. “(The fires) may burn in a few rows, but that’s where it’s defensible space. It slows them down. It stops them. There’s no question there.”
Green vineyards lack a flammable understory and benefit from regular irrigation, Regusci said.
Regusci offered a photo of a blacked hillside of chaparral and wild grasses in the Atlas Peak area where the fire ran up against a vineyard that slowed its advance.
The Atlas Fire damaged 22 acres of predominantly cabernet sauvignon vines at Jim and Laura Regusci’s namesake winery and ranch in the Stag’s Leap District. While estimating that four of the 22 acres had been completely burned, the Reguscis said the full impact on all the vines is yet uncertain.
“You won’t know until spring,” Jim Regusci said.
The Reguscis have dealt with fire damage in their vineyards before. “It takes you two years to really understand,” Jim Regusci said. “You’ll see bud push and you’ll see growth patterns that have changed.”
With the vines heading into dormancy, the team at Regusci is tending less to the vines themselves and more to amending the soil with compost and taking erosion control measures. That has meant putting out 2,000 bales of straw and more than a mile of wattles and silt dams.
Erosion control has also been the focus at Artesa Vineyards and Winery across the valley in the Carneros region. The Partrick Fire claimed tracts of vineyard belonging to Artesa, including two small blocks of chardonnay, said vineyard manager Jesus Hernandez.
Hernandez said that along with erosion control, the team at Artesa is also assessing where repairs will eventually need to made in the vineyards to materials like drip hose that were damaged by the fires.
“So when we come back in the spring, we can focus on the areas that were affected, basically do all the repair and maintenance before bud break, as Mother Nature allows for it,” he said.
As for fire damage to grapevines, there may be cause for optimism depending on the severity of the heat brought on by the fire. Speaking at a Napa Valley Vineyard Technical Group meeting on wildfire recovery last week, USDA researcher Dr. Andrew McElrone noted the plant tissue of grapevines “is actually pretty resilient … it’s just a matter of how intense that heat would have been on that.”
Even for the vines at Regusci that appear to have been completely burned, Laura Regusci remains hopeful. “They look like they’re not alive, but there’s some resiliency in the vine, that after winter and having rain there’s a good chance it’ll push back in the spring.”
“But,” she said “we really won’t know until that time comes.”
For severely damaged vines, Jim Regusci said there was “no question” that they would be replanted. “This is what we do,” he said. “We farm grapes. I mean nature has just dealt you a fire this year … that’s just part of what agriculture is.”
The team at Artesa is also considering the prospect of replanting, Hernandez said. But it would need to find the right clonal selection and rootstock in the marketplace, which likely won’t be until early next year.
“We won’t be able to make a sound decision before then,” he said.
Caltrans is completing plans to replace a small bridge on a major thoroughfare — Highway 121 linking south Napa and Sonoma counties — while keeping traffic running without a detour.
The $13.9 million Huichica Creek bridge project could begin construction in 2020 and last for two years. The stated goals are to make the highway safer for motorists and to make the creek easier to navigate for fish.
Caltrans intends to demolish an old bridge, build a new one and still allow an average of 32,000 vehicles daily to keep crossing the creek under Highway 121, which is also known as Highway 12 and the Carneros Highway. The idea is to do the project in phases, with the new bridge overbuilt initially and the extra width removed during the last phase. Traffic will shift as a section of the new bridge is built and a section of the old bridge is removed.
Nighttime work is to be minimized for environmental reasons. Daytime motorists and bridge construction workers will have to co-exist.
“There is going to be a little slowdown to improve the highway,” Caltrans spokesman Vince Jacala said.
Caltrans released a 164-page report on the proposed Huichica Creek project bridge at www.dot.ca.gov/d4/envdocs.htm, which is still in the design phase.
“Everything isn’t set in stone yet,” Jacala said.
Two-lane Highway 121 runs through the rolling, vineyard-covered hills of the Carneros region. A new Huichica Creek bridge will be the final piece of a bigger project that improved virtually all of a 1.7-mile stretch from Duhig Road in Napa County to the Sonoma County line.
This section once saw higher rates of fatal accidents than comparable highways, a Caltrans report said. In 2011, Caltrans finished widening the road, adding shoulders and smoothing curves. Accident fatalities dropped from eight from January 2001 through December 2003 to none from July 2012 through June 2015, statistics show.
But Caltrans didn’t replace the Huichica Creek bridge along this stretch of Highway 121 to fit in with the rest of the wider roadway. The reason was proposed fish passage improvements associated with the proposed bridge didn’t satisfy various state and federal environmental agencies, officials said.
Huichica Creek flows for about 16 miles from the southern Mayacamas mountains to Napa Slough, which empties into the Napa River. Steelhead trout are in the stream. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife considers the portion of the creek at the bridge to be a fish barrier to upstream spawning grounds.
Downstream of the bridge is a six-foot to eight-foot drop that fish have trouble passing. The creek crosses under the bridge in three 78-inch-wide metal culverts built in 1968, when environmental laws were laxer.
“It’s like a broken leg of the stream,” Jacala said.
A new-and-improved Huichica Creek bridge would have no culverts, but would be a free span bridge clear of the creek. Caltrans proposes to remove paved portions of the creek channel near the bridge, create a gentler slope in the channel and build eight step-pools that fish could travel between with a maximum half-foot jump. Fish passage improvements are to extend 300 feet downstream of the bridge and 130 feet upstream.
“Water will flow better and it will be a better watershed,” Jacala said.
The new bridge will even allow more light to penetrate to the bottom of the creek. That should allow for natural physical and biotic conditions, the Caltrans report said.
Meanwhile, motorists will see an altered landscape. Workers will have to remove oaks, sycamores, Oregon ash, white alder and other trees to complete the project, perhaps as many as 100, though Caltrans said it will make efforts to avoid or prune trees instead.
But motorists won’t see the loss of one of Napa County’s famous, historic stone bridges. The Huichica Creek bridge has no charming stone sides, but metal guard rails.
The new, concrete bridge is to be 44 feet wide, nine feet wider than the current version.