On Tuesday, I went back to the home I grew up in to see if it survived the Atlas Peak fire.
Along the way I heard stories of luck, survival, exhaustion and heartbreak.
I spent my first 18 years in a house at 1824 Hardman Ave., located near the east end of the street where it meets up with Atlas Peak Road. My family sold our property last decade and moved to the west side of town.
Most of the homes on Hardman came through this week’s inferno unscathed.
But not all of them.
I counted three houses that were completely destroyed.
Their blackened remains — scarred chimney towers, warped metal bed frames, crumpled air conditioners and stoves — were still smoldering as of Tuesday morning.
While growing up on Hardman, our street had been a place from which families had watched other fires tear through the nearby eastern hillside.
In 1960, before I was born, my parents and siblings stayed up all night watching from our backyard a large fire roar down the valley. Luckily, it stayed up high and didn’t descend to the valley floor.
In 1981, just before I started high school, another fire scorched the hills above the Silverado Country Club, destroying numerous homes in its path.
In both instances, those living on Hardman escaped destruction.
Hardman’s luck ran out Sunday night.
The Amadors — a family that has lived on Hardman since 1971, and across the street from my old home — lost two houses on the same parcel, along with a couple vehicles.
Cynthia Amador, a former classmate of mine, told me she was “very sad and overwhelmed” by the losses.
“As we stand by the piles of ashes that were once our houses, it is unbelievable to see how it was brought to just two small piles,” she said. “Not a trace of a house left.”
Although “devastated” by the fire, she added that they felt “blessed that we got out with our family and animals alive.”
Having two homes on the same property is not uncommon on Hardman.
My family had two houses on our former land — one that was there when my parents moved to Napa in the late 1940s, and a second one that my father built in the early 1960s to accommodate our large family of nine.
Both houses survived the disaster, as did the homes belonging to the family of Wyatt Knippen, who lives kitty-corner from our old homes.
“Don’t know why ours didn’t burn,” said Knippen on Tuesday as he and his wife were packing up what they could before leaving again.
“Just lucky I guess.”
The fire came within feet of their two houses, one of which belonged to his aunt. Knippen said she was watering down the roof before they evacuated Sunday night.
Another Hardman homeowner, whose house was just east of my former home, wasn’t lucky. It was completely destroyed.
“You have any idea where Dorothy is,” Phil Sanchez asked me after walking out of his home — the same house I grew up in. Sanchez bought our property in 2000.
He was wondering if his neighbor Dorothy was OK. He said they warned her about the fire just before they left about 11:30 p.m. Sunday night.
“I think she got out,” said Sanchez. “Where she is I don’t know.”
He said that on Sunday evening he “started smelling something that wasn’t right, and I got up [from bed].”
“We’ve seen fires before in the area, especially in this canyon,” said Sanchez, pointing towards the hills above the Silverado Country Club.
“This one was pretty quick, so we knew by instinct to leave pretty quickly, and we did.”
“This is incredible,” he said, looking at his neighbor’s decimated property. “She had a lot of trees here too, so that might have added to it.”
Sanchez said their only damage was to their pump house, which was demolished. A 1,500-gallon water tank that supplied their home had completely melted.
“We lost all our water supply,” he said. “I’m showering at my sister’s in Vallejo. We’re just keeping an eye on the property.”
After saying goodbye to Sanchez, I spotted a Cal Fire official approaching on foot.
The man declined to give his name, saying he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. He was out inspecting the damage on Hardman along with another Cal Fire inspector called up from Southern California.
Inspection was now his second task, after spending Sunday night and Monday fighting the Atlas Peak fire and helping evacuate people.
“I was here from the beginning,” he said. “We got called here, then the others [fires] broke too. I was here all night.”
The 15-year firefighter worked 24 hours before getting a break.
“We had so many fires break that night that we’ve stretched our teams all over the state,” he said. “We had pretty much every volunteer engine plus every Cal Fire career engine — everybody — out on the road.”
“Everyone is working around the clock. My volunteer engines got their first break after 44 hours. Just for safety they had to stop for a minute and rest, and they’re all back to work today.”
“A lot of the crews are just for the first time coming off the line today to eat,” he said. “It’s been pretty intense, pretty incredible.”
He said when he first arrived in the area Sunday night, “You could already see it just up on the hill — pretty incredible the rate that the fire spread.”
At first he and other firefighters were going door to door. They fought the flames, too, but mostly were trying to get people out of harm’s way.
“That’s all it was at that point — rescue,” he said. “We started working here getting all the last stragglers of the PGA tour out and started evacuating people from homes” in the country club.
“CHP started picking people up off the top [of the hills using a helicopter]. Trees, power lines, everything were down. Nobody could drive up or down” from the very top of the hillsides.
“They called in a ship [helicopter] from Redding,” he added. “They were shuttling people down off the hills.”
“The winds were blowing so hard that night, our priority was life at that moment.”
He said he was “surprisingly happy” to see how many homes and structures managed to survive the fire given “how hard it was moving.”
Still, “This is a pretty significant amount of damage already we’re seeing” during the inspections.
He said there was still a lot of firefighting to do on the Atlas fire, even without the intense winds.
“Everything is so dry,” he said. “It’s not wind driven now, it’s fuel driven. It’s moving in every direction.”