Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is city editor of the Napa Valley Register.

J.L. Sousa, Register

After our October trial by fire, I’d say Napa’s return to normalcy is still very much a work in progress, never mind this weekend’s rain.

Store clerks, the guy behind me at Starbucks, everyone in my circle of friends and acquaintances — they all still want to tell their fire stories.

It changes a person to live through a week of ridgelines glowing like portals to hell, as gagging smoke and ash engulf everything you hold dear.

Most Napans didn’t have their houses burn, most didn’t have to evacuate, but virtually everyone got the warning to be ready to run and felt the fear of the apocalypse.

Napa is supposed to be a mellow place, but in what mellow universe do all the schools abruptly shut down for two weeks, does half the town get blacked out, do tourist zones sit empty, do convoys of fire engines clog our streets?

I’ve lived on the western edge of Napa for four decades and never once thought I was at risk of a wildfire. I was protected by the city fire department. My street had hydrants. My front lawn was watered and a small vineyard was planted across the way.

That complacency evaporated once the Nuns (Partrick), Atlas and Tubbs fires roared to life and ringed the Napa Valley, rampaging day after day with humans showing little ability to stop them.

If the blow torch winds on that historic Sunday night had been pointed my way, the Partrick Fire could have leapt from the surrounding countryside and incinerated our house in a heartbeat, not unlike those hundreds of homes wiped out in east Napa and those thousands of homes in Santa Rosa. There’s no doubt about it.

Who could have imagined such a scenario before Oct. 8? In future dry days of autumn, who will ever escape such thoughts?

I’m late to the what-if game. During the mayhem, I had the luxury of going to work each day to a safe newspaper office in the heart of town.

It was left to Cheryl, who was called off from her work, to fret at home and strategize how our house might be saved. Her feelings of utter vulnerability didn’t end with fire containment.

How long will it take before a person can again feel comfortable living in proximity to — or in view of — wildlands?

That sunrise the other morning that turned the eastern horizon golden? Lovely, indeed, but only if you can disremember those boiling Atlas Fire sunrises.

Cheryl, working in her garden under clear skies last weekend, suddenly tensed. What’s that smell? The Partrick Fire sprung back to life?

A string of sirens cut through the Browns Valley quiet earlier that weekend. The heart beat faster. What now? Is there a Nixle?

Cheryl would like to drive around to see the fires’ devastation for herself. She wants to personally come to terms with how wind-driven flames can lay waste to whatever we humans so innocently, foolishly put in their path.

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I’ve balked. I don’t want to see the charred ruins. I’ve had my fill of media images of the fires’ destruction. I’ve read too many of the stories about those who survived and those who did not.

I want time out from all that. I crave normalcy.

So we did what we thought would be a safe thing. We went on one of our little weekend walks up lower Partrick Road, below where the flames lit up the horizon for four straight days.

At this elevation, all seemed normal. The tree canopy, the golden fields, the homes tucked behind long driveways.

Then something caught my eye. Across the creek that flows through Browns Valley, the ground beneath a hillside of healthy bay laurels was blackened. The char ran up the hill, then disappeared toward Carneros and Sonoma.

How did this disturbing sight come to be, less than a half mile from our house?

Cheryl knew. Here is where firefighters had made a stand. Here is where they had set the backfires that helped save our neighborhood.

The emotional wallop of this scene — the blackened grass beneath the bay laurels, the sharp line on the ground where the threat of annihilation was turned back — is beyond words.

I choke up just thinking about it.

Kevin can be reached at 707-256-2217 or Napa Valley Register, 1615 Soscol Ave., Napa, 94559, or kcourtney@napanews.com.

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