Circle Oaks, a subdivision of 180 homes in rural Napa County, faced multiple High Noon moments during the Atlas Fire, but it survived.
Key to saving this neighborhood of 750 people was one resident, Larry Carr, a professional firefighter, who ignored evacuation orders and stayed to fight.
Carr, a battalion chief for the El Cerrito Fire Department, stayed at his house during the eight-day evacuation to help on the front lines, put out hot spots and advise out-of-county strike teams that came and went during the conflagration.
At various times it seemed that Circle Oaks might succumb to the hot flames, but Carr stayed cool.
“When anyone goes into a fight like that, worrying doesn’t help,” Carr said. “It’s just the job. You know what needs to be done and you accomplish it. You know in the back of your mind you have a personal stake in it. But you’re on automatic.”
Just how near Circle Oaks came to being another Atlas Fire tragedy can be seen at Carr’s house. The charred undergrowth is within perhaps 30 feet of his back deck and is just as close to other homes along the community’s upper elevations.
Circle Oaks is located along Highway 121 in the hills between Napa Valley and Lake Berryessa. The homes dating back to the 1960s sit on slopes amid oaks, madrones and other trees – definitely wildfire country.
At about 10 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8, resident Michele Johnson learned on Facebook that a wildfire was burning nearby. That night was exceptionally windy, with gusts topping 70 mph reported in the region.
“I immediately turned on my scanner,” she said. “Just living out there, I need to know what’s going on. I could hear a concern. There was a fire on Atlas Peak.”
She contacted her friend Lisa Hirayama, whose husband is Carr. Carr, a firefighter for 31 years with a resume that includes work for Cal Fire and the Forest Service, was on the job 45 miles away at his El Cerrito fire post.
Independently, Carr saw a request that El Cerrito contribute firefighters to a strike team in Napa County. That didn’t worry him too much – until he heard the fire was on Atlas Peak.
Atlas Peak, where the fire had started, and Circle Oaks are about a 14-mile drive apart over mountainous, brushy terrain. But they are separated by only about 1.5 miles as the crow flies.
Johnson, Hirayama and other residents obeyed a mandatory evacuation order that came at 12:30 a.m. Monday Oct. 9. An hour later, Carr arrived by himself, not as part of a strike team, to become a protector for a deserted community.
That afternoon, Carr watched supertankers drop pink fire retardant on the blaze behind a ridge. He thought their efforts would knock down the fire, but later concluded the area’s many trees blocked the vast amounts of retardant from extinguishing the fiery undergrowth.
The fire came over the ridge and headed toward Circle Oaks that evening. It was moving against the wind, yet still descended the mountain.
“Like a slow walk,” Carr said.
An out-of-county strike team had arrived by then. Nine firefighters – including Carr – with two engines would try to save Circle Oaks.
Except both engines were called away at about 12:30 a.m. Oct. 10, when a neighborhood at Waters Road less than a mile away faced an even more critical situation. Carr was on his own and the slowly-approaching fire was about 300 yards uphill from his and other Circle Oaks homes.
At 2:15 a.m., a finger of the fire came down between his house and a neighbor’s. As the situation turned dire, the two engines returned.
“They knew I was here by myself,” Carr said. “They returned to here just in time.”
As the Atlas Fire burned to within about 50 feet of Circle Oaks, firefighters set backfires at key locations to burn fuel ahead of the advancing flames. They squirted water on the flames.
That’s when all hell broke loose. Next to Carr’s home is a hollow with berry vines that he calls the bowl or swamp. The fire grew wild in “the bowl” at about 6 a.m., with the survival of nearby homes hanging in the balance.
“It was an all-hands-on-deck situation because of swirling, flying embers,” Carr said. “This is the stand.”
Firefighters won a battle that lasted about 45 minutes, but Circle Oaks wasn’t out of the burning woods yet.
Carr patrolled Circle Oaks, putting out spot fires with a shovel and with water in a bucket and even in his helmet. Officials with the Circle Oaks water district had remained in the area and did such things as make certain the hydrants still ran.
Another big moment came the night of Oct. 10 when Hirayama received an erroneous report saying that Circle Oaks homes were burning. She contacted Carr on his cell phone and he went on patrol. No homes were burning, but Carr found a finger of fire menacing homes on Lookout Drive.
He drove and found a fire engine that responded and saved the area. Fake news narrowly avoided becoming real news.
“Luckily I got that false message, because it sent him out to look,” Hirayama said.
Carr described his role in part as being “the local knowledge guy” for firefighters from such places as Santa Barbara County. He could tell them about Circle Oaks’ most vulnerable points and how to reach them.
He drove through the subdivision on a recent day showing the locations of the big fire battles. The evacuation had been lifted and several residents stopped him to express their gratitude to him.
“Thank you very much for what you did,” one man told him.
Johnson feels the same way.
“He knew what he was doing,” Johnson said. “He saved our community.”
Circle Oaks as a whole may have also helped save itself. County Assistant Fire Chief Geoff Belyea noted Circle Oaks has long been among Napa County’s Firewise communities.
The Circle Oaks Homes Association spent $22,000 to $110,000 annually from 2000 through 2015 on fire safety projects, according to the Circle Oaks website, with 2015 being the latest update. The community has a Fire Safe Council that inspects homes to make certain they have fuel breaks.
After the close call, Carr and Hirayama intend to remain living at Circle Oaks. The slopes behind their house are blackened along the ground, but the trees remain, so that particular view looks somewhat as it did before the blaze.
“I was here 17 years before this happened,” Hirayama said. “We still love it here. It’s beautiful. What’s amazing is, it doesn’t look like anything has changed. The trees are still here.”
Johnson has lived in Circle Oaks since 2003 and she too plans to stay.
“Our community makes it worth it,” she said. “I love it here. I never want to move.”
A red-white-and-blue sign along Highway 121 at the entrance to Circle Oaks is a coda to a frantic eight days. It sums up a triumph that easily could have been a tragedy.
“Thank you to all our Circle Oaks fire protectors. Atlas Fire 2017,” it reads.