On the field it may have been all about Friday night football, but in the stands it was all about community. This was “Big Game” – the annual rivalry game between the Napa High School Indians and the Vintage High School Crushers. This year, though, that rivalry was softened by the recent wildfires that took out hundreds of homes in Napa Valley.
“There is a rivalry, of course,” but it’s a positive one, said Katie Aaron, parent to freshman player Jacob Aaron. “Especially after what we’ve all gone through, this is a perfect event to bring the community together and heal.”
Sitting on a set of bleachers closest to the Memorial Stadium field, Aaron, decked out in school pride, began to tear up.
Her parents lost their home in the fire – the home that her father built, the home that she grew up in. Still, she said, her parents would be joining her at the game. Her family is full of committed Crushers. Aaron graduated from Vintage High, she used to teach and coach at Vintage, her son is on the football team, and her mother just recently retired from teaching at Vintage.
“Sports have always been an escape,” Aaron said. “Sporting events are things that people go to to escape some harsh realities.”
“Everyone remembers their big game experience,” she said. Her own son, Jacob, was able to play on the Junior Varsity game on Friday even though he is on the freshmen team. He’s excited to be a part of the traditions, she said.
“They practice and they work so hard all year long in the weight room and the classroom in order to play a sport,” she said. “Getting to play JV tonight is an extra special experience for a freshman.”
Isaac and Teresa Castillo’s son is having a whole different experience – he’s a senior at Napa High, a school that has experienced its own drama in regards to hazing related to last year’s Big Game and controversy over its Indian mascot. The football program was in danger of being cancelled for the year.
The Castillo were relieved when it wasn’t.
“I know it’s been a hard road this year, but the boys have been able to play,” Teresa said.
“They’ve been through the wringer for sure,” added her husband.
For their son Isaac, not being able to play during his senior year would have been a big deal, the Castillos said. They were even looking at sending him to another school.
Because of everything that has happened, including the wildfires, this year’s Big Game was different, Teresa Castillo said. These same seniors were also playing when Napa experienced the earthquake in 2015, she added.
“The boys are some tough boys because they’ve taken a lot,” she said. “It’s really good that they have the opportunity to do this.”
Chris Malan has spent many years working for the County of Napa helping homeless people find help.
Today, she and her family are homeless themselves. Their longtime family house on Atlas Peak was destroyed in the Atlas Fire.
“I have been in a state of shock” since Oct. 8, Malan, 65, said.
The family — which includes her retired husband Jack, a quadriplegic adult son Micah who uses a wheelchair, an adult son Joshua who is recovering from a bus accident, a team of live-in medical caregivers and the family’s animals — now faces the long process of rebuilding their lives.
“We’re all trying to do whatever we can to help each other and get back to our home,” she said.
On that Sunday night, before the Atlas Fire roared over the hill behind her house, Chris Malan was at Queen of the Valley Medical Center.
In a strange twist, Joshua Malan had been hit that weekend by a bus during the Safeway Open Concert Series at Silverado Resort and Spa. He’d been hospitalized for his injuries and while he recovers is also in a wheelchair.
On her way back home, as she got closer to the family compound at 2945 Atlas Peak Rd., Malan described ferocious winds and debris flying everywhere.
“Power lines were swinging,” she said. She thought she heard transformers exploding. “It was extremely dangerous conditions.”
Back at her house, Malan said she smelled smoke.
“We were looking for the flames,” but didn’t see anything, she said. She and others at home that night were talking about whether or not they’d have to evacuate when one of Micah Malan’s caregivers, Stephen Boschetti, sounded the alarm.
“Fire!” he screamed.
“We ran outside and the whole ridgeline behind our house was like a tsunami wave of flames,” recalled Malan. “They were leaping high in the air and blowing up trees. We had to run. I got my purse and keys and helped my son Micah into his chair.”
Driving down Atlas Peak Road in multiple vehicles, the group got separated. Chris and Micah Malan made it down to the Silverado Resort where she saw firefighters staging.
“I begged them to hurry,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Go fast, there is a terrible fire storm up there.’”
Meanwhile her husband had stopped along Atlas Peak Road to help alert neighbors — some of whom were still sound asleep.
Boschetti and a second caregiver, Joe Padilla, also fled — one by car, one by motorcycle.
At one point, some of the group got stuck behind a fallen tree that blocked Atlas Peak Road. After an agonizing wait, it was cleared.
Everyone eventually reunited at the Westin Verasa hotel in downtown Napa where Malan had found a room.
“We were the first fire refugees to hit the Westin,” she said. “I told them, get ready. You’re going to have a lot of people.”
Malan said during that night she held out hope that the house would be safe. The home, where they lived for some 40 years, survived a big fire in the same area in 1981, she noted.
“You never know what a fire is going to do,” said Malan, “but when I saw the tsunami waves of flame coming, I knew in my heart of hearts,” that it wasn’t going to make it.
Several days after the fires, the family was escorted up Atlas Peak Road to see what was left.
In all, three homes were lost: two houses on the Malan property and one nearby house where one of the caregivers lived.
Everything was gone, she said, even papers and items she’d placed in a new safe.
“I thought I was smart having things in the safe. But it didn’t make it. It all melted.”
The only bright spot was finding their chickens were alive.
As of mid-week, the family was still at the Westin, but making plans to relocate. “We’ve been scrambling trying to find another place to live,” said Malan.
A house for Joshua Malan and his two children has been secured.
“The rest of us are looking for a place to rent while we rebuild,” she said.
When asked how she is holding up after such a crisis, Malan said she has no choice.
“I have been very, very focused on tasks and trying to put my emotions aside,” she said. “I have two sons in wheelchairs. There is no time for crying or sobbing now.”
“I wake up in the morning and I start my list,” she said. “I try to accomplish three major tasks a day.”
“The daily needs go on. We’re trying to survive. We’re trying to keep the home front going in a hotel,” with sons who need special medical care “while trying to figure out how we go from one step to another.”
The priority is finding an ADA-accessible home that has room for Micah Malan’s two caregivers and the family’s dogs.
Malan said she knows that’s a tall order these days. “I just put the word out far and wide and trust the universe will bring it back to us.”
The insurance company told Malan that the recovery and rebuilding process could take two years. Even though they had insurance, the Malans’ house will be impossible to reproduce, she said.
It was a piece of art, said Malan. Her father, a masonry contractor, did much of the work. Over many years, she said, “We slowly built our dream home.”
Malan paused for a moment. “As I’m saying this, it’s very emotional. It’s a home built from blood, sweat and tears. We cannot replace it.”
While Jack Malan is retired, Chris Malan has been a county employee for more than 30 years and was also a candidate in the District 4 supervisor race in 2016. She is known locally as an ardent environmentalist.
Her most recent county job is as a drug and alcohol counselor helping the homeless at the South Napa Shelter.
“And now it’s my turn. Now I’m homeless,” Malan said.
One treasure lost, two treasures found
Malan continues to mourn the loss of the home, as well as the surroundings.
The family built their home next to an ancient oak tree, one that was at least several hundred years old.
“It was gorgeous,” she said. “And we killed it.”
The tree survived many years before the Malans bought the property, “but it didn’t survive us,” she said. “I feel terrible about that.”
At the same time, a small amount of comfort came after finding two keepsakes amidst the ruins.
The first was an old Nevada sheriff’s star that Jack Malan’s father had given him long ago.
“That thing has been a conversation piece in our family for years,” she said. The badge is scorched, but not melted. “I was so happy he found it.”
Then, another heirloom was reclaimed. It was a favorite china tea cup that belonged to Chris Malan’s mother, who passed away several years ago.
The tea cup is also scorched and blackened, but intact.
Holding the recovered cup, “I just stared at it for a long time,” she said.
“I felt like my mother was saying, ‘Out of the ashes we rise.’”
A Napa homeowner has joined the ranks of what is now more than 100 people suing PG&E for allegedly causing the wildfires that plagued Northern California for several weeks in October.
The homeowner, San Mateo resident Valerie Evans, filed her class action suit alleging negligence against the utility company in Napa County Superior Court last week while fires in Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties were still burning. Evans’ Creekside condo at 100 Bonnie Brook Drive at Silverado Resort burned to the ground in the Atlas Fire, according to the lawsuit.
The Atlas Fire, which started Oct. 8 on Atlas Peak Road, burned 51,624 acres and destroyed nearly 500 homes before it was 100 percent contained last Friday, according to Napa County officials.
Although the cause of the fire is still under investigation by Cal Fire, the lawsuit alleges that the fire began when high winds blew vegetation and/or trees into electrical transmission or distribution lines owned, operated, controlled and/or maintained by PG&E.
The company had a duty to maintain the equipment and should have known the risk not doing so would have, the suit alleges, “particularly in light of the increased vegetation growth caused by an exceptionally wet spring, the presence of drought-stricken trees, and the foreseeable dry, windy fall conditions.”
The suit calls the wildfires a “foreseeable” and “preventable” tragedy.
Along with her condo and its contents, Evans says she lost one-of-a-kind artwork, rare trees and “irreplaceable” vintage collectibles from around the world.
Evans, who is being represented by law firms Caddel & Chapman of Houston and Francis & Mailman, P.C. of Philadelphia, is asking to be certified as a class representative representing other property owners who were victims of the Atlas Fire in Napa and Solano counties.
In addition to suing PG&E Corporation and Pacifica Gas and Electric Co., Evans has also named 50 “Does” representing potential contractors hired by PG&E to clear vegetation and/or trim trees around power lines in Napa County.
The first individuals to sue the utility company were Wayne and Jennifer Harvell, residents of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood which was leveled by the Tubbs Fire. The couple filed their lawsuit just eight days after the Tubbs Fire destroyed their home. Since then, more than 100 other victims have filed lawsuits against PG&E, according to media reports.
Attorney Bill Robins, who is representing a Santa Rosa family, told The Press Democrat Wednesday that he’s asked San Francisco Superior Court to consolidate all the cases under one judge in anticipation of hundreds of more lawsuits.
“It’s important because we expect there to be thousands of cases,” he said.
PG&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras responded with this statement:
“Nothing is more important to us than the safety and well-being of our customers and communities we serve. Our thoughts are with everyone impacted by these devastating wildfires. We are aware that lawsuits have been filed. There has been no determination on the causes of the fires. We’re focused on doing everything we can to help these communities rebuild and recover.”
State regulators Tuesday revealed that PG&E reported at least 17 “electric safety incidents” in eight counties the night of Oct. 8-9, including at least four locations in Sonoma County: Santa Rosa, Geyserville, Kenwood and Glen Ellen, according to the Press Democrat. It reported at least three locations in Napa County and one near Ukiah. The exact locations were redacted in the reports from the California Public Utilities Commission.
The reports said PG&E blamed heavy winds and downed trees for damaging its equipment.
Scarce, costly supplies of rental homes had been a fact of Napa County life for years. Then came the night of Oct. 8.
Amid the tens of thousands of acres consumed by wildfires are the remains of an estimated 569 homes destroyed by the flames. Less than a month later, real estate researchers already are reporting sharp rent increases for single-family homes in Napa and Sonoma, the counties where the fires took their heaviest toll in lives and property.
The Zillow real estate website reported that median rents for its Napa County listings rose by 32 cents per square foot from September to October, to $2.24. For a median-size home of 1,300 square feet, that adds up to a monthly rent of $2,912, a $416 increase, according to Aaron Terrazas, senior economist for Seattle-based Zillow Research.
Sonoma County rents jumped even more, according to Zillow – a 56-cent increase to $2.38 a square foot, or $3,094 a month for 1,300 square feet.
“These people who left their homes are looking for places to live, particularly in an area where the supply was already constrained,” Terrazas said Thursday. “Right now the focus is on the effects in Napa, but you’d expect (effects) in neighboring areas as people are forced to look further afield.”
Rent levels actually dipped slightly in October in Marin and Solano counties, which felt far less of the fires’ effects, but Terrazas cautioned rents eventually could creep upward farther from Napa County if local supplies tighten.
Not only rising prices are creating new conditions in the post-fire rental market, he added. In the first week after the fires erupted, according to Terrazas, about 80 percent of Napa County’s estimated 70 home listings were for homes never made available on Zillow before, suggesting they were new to the market or had served as vacation rather than residential rentals in the past. Furthermore, more than half the homes available to rent are in the website’s upper third, those with a sale value above $849,500.
While some fire survivors may pay month by month for another roof over their heads, others already are drawing up plans to rebuild in place or nearby. Napa architect Chris Craiker this week reported already receiving 11 inquiries for post-fire home construction, with contracts being prepared for a half dozen sites.
In the Napa-area neighborhoods where the wildfires took their heaviest toll, however, the decision whether to put up new homes where flames swept away old ones is not always clear – either because hilly terrain drives up building costs or because older residents may move on to other communities or even into retirement homes.
With a large number of older homeowners in the Silverado Highlands and other neighborhoods hit by the Atlas Fire, “a big decision will be whether they even want to rebuild,” said Craiker. “I’m guessing 50 percent or more will not.”
Those who persist face a succession of hurdles, starting with removing ash that may be laced with asbestos and other harmful substances. The state of home foundations also may get in the way, if the heat of the fires has damaged concrete or warped the reinforcing steel.
“We’re telling most clients they probably have to remove their foundations,” Craiker said this week. “It’s not going to be structurally sufficient for today’s construction. Even if it seemed good 20 years ago, once you reinforcement it to modern codes, it’s not worth the trouble.”
Craiker estimated new home construction in the Highlands could run about 20 percent higher than before the fires to $800 to $1,000 per square foot, with the cost boosted by stricter building standards, steep terrain, and a shortage of contractors and labor.
He also expected future homes to be held to stricter standards for fire resistance, similar to those in burn-prone forest communities – steps that could include banning wooden exterior treatments in favor of stucco and cement fiberboard, or specifying windows of stronger tempered glass.
Working in favor of post-fire construction, however, is a wider insurance backstop compared to past disasters like the 2014 earthquake, according to Charlie Bogue, broker for Coldwell Banker Brokers of the Valley in Napa. Fire insurance covers about 90 percent of Napa County residential properties, a much higher rate than those insured against quake damage, he said.
Although Bogue predicted a “short-term hesitation” to rebuild or buy in recently fire-damaged zones is possible, he pointed to resilient sales in the Browns Valley neighborhood – despite quake damage to homes and streets – as evidence that fear borne of catastrophes will eventually fade.
“I thought that 2014 would have repercussions in Browns Valley,” he said, “but people seem to have a high degree of optimism or short memories – I don’t know which it is.”