Before the first Nixle alert went out the night of Oct. 8, neighbors honking their horns, firefighters knocking on doors and, in some cases, barking dogs alerted Napa County residents that an inferno was coming their way.
Soda Canyon resident Glenn Schreuder said that he learned about the Atlas Fire from his teenage daughter who could see an orange-red glow from where she was in Napa. Schreuder and his wife then saw the flames for themselves. Trapped on Soda Canyon Road, they signaled a California Highway Patrol helicopter that was flying overhead.
Two CHP helicopter crews went on to save more than 40 people that night.
Around that same time, Circle Oaks resident Michele Johnson learned about the fire on Facebook.
“I immediately turned on my scanner,” she said. “Just living out there, I need to know what’s going on. I could hear concern. There was a fire on Atlas Peak.”
The first Nixle alert warning of the fire in Calistoga was released at 11:31 p.m. on Oct. 8 – more than an hour after it had started. Calistoga residents were ordered to evacuate. At 11:34 p.m. all Soda Canyon residents were ordered to evacuate.
Circle Oaks West to Atlas Peak was evacuated via Nixle at 12:29 a.m., less than an hour later.
Melanie Whiteley evacuated with her granddaughter before that message was sent. “I smelled smoke,” she said. “I looked out the window and the whole hillside was on fire from the Atlas Peak side.”
Whiteley’s son broke up branches blocking Atlas Peak Road so that she and others could escape.
Chris Malan’s first clue that something was wrong was when she noticed power lines swinging and the sound of transformers exploding as she headed home to 2945 Atlas Peak Rd. When she got there, she could smell smoke.
“We were looking for the flames,” but didn’t see anything, she said. While the family was discussing whether or not they might need to evacuate, one of her son’s caretakers screamed “Fire!”
“We ran outside and the whole ridgeline behind our house was like a tsunami wave of flames,” Malan said. “They were leaping high in the air and blowing up trees. We had to run.”
Samantha Gardner, who was renting a home on Atlas Peak Road with her family, said that she woke up to approaching flames.
“We had maybe five minutes to get out,” she said.
Other residents learned of the fire thanks to phone calls from friends and family.
Tourist Debbie DeLanoy said that she only learned of the fire after her boyfriend went out for a walk and saw the flames behind their rental on Westgate Drive.
“My boyfriend just went walking for fun,” DeLanoy said, “and I got a text message saying, ‘Get out of there now. Look out the back door. There’s a fire.’ And I saw the place next door torching up. I left with my medicines and his backpack.”
It was the persistent calls from a friend that tipped Westgate Drive resident Norma Quintana off to the fire.
“There’s a fire behind your house,” Quintana’s friend told her when she finally answered after the third call. Quintana didn’t see anything, so she and her husband went for a walk.
“It was so windy,” she said. “We had to hold onto each other.”
When they finally saw the glowing hills, they went back home to collect flashlights. Evacuating was not on her mind, but then she heard loudspeakers outside blare the words “Evacuate immediately.”
Next first responders were knocking hard at the door. They said it was time to leave.
It was about 11 p.m. when firefighters knocked on Maureen Quinn’s door in the Silverado Highlands, informing the family to evacuate.
“The sky was red (and) the winds were blowing,” she said. “We’re lucky to be alive.”
“My mom woke up to honking horns up and down the street,” said Pam Condos, whose mother lived in a home just outside Silverado Crest. When she looked outside, she said, her mother saw Westgate Drive on fire. Condos was on the phone with her mother when the flames reached her deck.
“I could hear my mom screaming in the background,” she said. Cell service cut out.
The family was reunited later that night when Condos’ mother and step-father showed up at her door.
It was David Preimesberger’s dog that saved him, says his wife, Mel, who was not home at the time.
“It was the dog that woke him up,” she said. “He had three minutes to get out.”
Mark Hyatt, who lives on Mount George Avenue, said that his neighbors woke him up around 10:30 p.m. The fire hadn’t made it to the south side of Monticello Road yet, so he prepared some things and went to bed. When he woke up again at 1:30 a.m. the hill had been engulfed by flames.
He grabbed his seven cats and tried to save what vehicles he could before evacuating.
His neighbor, Silva Carr, said that firefighters alerted her family of the fires. They were “amazing,” she said, knocking on doors and driving toward the flames.
Napa County Sheriff’s Office officials knocked on doors to evacuate residents, Sheriff John Robertson said during the county’s first press conference on Oct. 9. Law enforcement officials from the Napa Police Department, Fairfield Police Department, Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office and Solano County Sheriff’s Office assisted.
Robertson said that there were some areas that not even officials could get to because of downed trees and power lines.
“This was a rapid, rapid fire event,” he said. “There were some places we just couldn’t get to.”
Barry Eberling, Howard Yune, Jennifer Huffman and Henry Lutz contributed to this story.