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New Tech students, from left, Austin Larsen, Martin Alvarez and Nick Dillon, received Napa Climate Champions awards for their project on deforestation and its climate consequences.

TOP STORIES OF 2018: No. 1
No. 1 story of 2018: Napa County faced wildfire recovery and new threats

Wildfires continued to loom large in Napa County in 2018. The cleanup and rebuilding from the devastating 2017 fires got underway, Calistoga endured a complete power blackout as a precaution against another fire threat, and the entire county experienced nearly two weeks of choking smoke from distant blazes.

The county escaped a disaster on the scale of the Atlas, Partrick and Tubbs wildfires that began Oct. 8, 2017. But those fires that destroyed more than 600 homes locally colored much of the year.

Come last January, piles of toxic ash still covered lots where homes had been. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was amid a cleanup program. Napa County government was preparing for an onslaught of rebuilding permits.

Joe Betz, the owner of House of Prime Rib restaurant in San Francisco, obtained the first permit. He started building a new Silverado house by February, about four months after his old one had been incinerated in the Atlas fire.

“I decided I’m not going to be a victim,” Betz said.

As of early December 2018, the county had received applications to rebuild about 25 percent of the homes lost in the fires. Three homes had been completed, county Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said.

Among those finished was one owned by the Todd and Tracy Walker. They moved into their new Soda Canyon farmhouse in November, in time to celebrate Thanksgiving and their 30th wedding anniversary.

“If there’s anything to come out of this story, it’s optimism,” Todd Walker said.

Terry Neff lost his Mount Veeder home during the Patrick/Nuns fire. He is among those who have yet to rebuild. Dealing with fire-damaged trees on his forested property proved the first order of business for him.

Neff is among the many people losing homes in the fires who found they were underinsured. He was looking at possibly rebuilding with a manufactured home.

“You can’t get the same house you had,” said Neff, who moved to Mount Veeder in 1971. “Because of the fire, we have to start looking at something else.”

PG&E found itself immersed in controversy after the fires. Cal Fire said in June that trees and tree limbs falling onto power lines during a windy night sparked the Atlas and Partrick fires. It referred the cases to the District Attorney’s office for possible violations of state law. It has yet to issue a report for the Tubbs fire.

PG&E responded that its “overall programs met our state’s high standards.”

Meanwhile, during 2018 PG&E cut down trees near power lines in the Mount Veeder and Angwin areas for fire cleanup and fire safety reasons. This too caused controversy, with some residents saying the utility cut down too many healthy trees and didn’t communicate well with property owners.

Mount Veeder resident Tony McClimans in April milled fire-damaged trees at Enchanted Hills Camp to create lumber for the camp. While doing so, he pointed to a clearing where PG&E had cut down trees – “murdered them,” in McClimans’ words.

“It was a glorious forest before,” McClimans said.

PG&E held an August forum in Angwin at Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon’s request to explain its tree-cutting policies to a skeptical audience of about 100 people.

“Community safety and your safety and the safety of all of our communities is PG&E’s number one priority,” Matt Pender of PG&E told the crowd at the Angwin fire station.

Part of PG&E’s new safety campaign is cutting the power in transmission lines that run through high fire danger areas if weather conditions warrant. It did just that in northern Napa County on Oct. 14, taking Calistoga off the grid in the process.

The city complained loudly after being without power for a couple of days, pointing out Calistoga is outside of high-risk fire zones. Businesses said they lost thousands of dollars’ worth of business and merchandise.

In November, PG&E installed generators to supply electricity to the town in the case power is shut down on transmission lines on another red flag day.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, found himself at the center of creating state legislation on wildfire safety. He saw room for improvement.

“We have the technology to be able to predict these windstorms,” Dodd said. “We also have the technology to be able to predict low humidity and high temperatures, which are keystones to these wildfires.”

The county had a few flashbacks to the bad fire days of October 2017. In July, the County Fire at the Napa/Yolo county line sent smoke into the Berryessa area.

Berryessa Highlands had a fire of its own in July. The blaze burned only 135 acres, but this land was amid the rural community of 350 homes. Eight homes were lost.

By August, a group of Berryessa Highlands residents sought to do more to prevent fires. They wanted more code enforcement from the county to ensure property owners clean up brush. They wanted campfires banned or fire-fighting capabilities beefed up at nearby resorts.

“I was out yesterday on the lake,” resident Pamela Daniel said in August. “Every time I saw a little puff of something, I’ve got to go see if there’s a fire.”

On a morning in early November, smoke could be seen from Soscol Avenue in Napa pouring into the Napa Valley. By mid-day, it was hard to see the hills on either side of the valley because of murk.

This smoke came from the Camp Fire in Butte County more than 100 miles to the northeast. Napans found themselves choking on a hazy stew created by the destruction of not only trees and vegetation, but most of the homes and businesses in the town of Paradise.

Gov. Jerry Brown in the wake of the Camp Fire and Southern California wildfires called the situation the “new abnormal” in California. If Brown is right, heightened fire jitters in Napa County may be here to stay.

Bikes, trains and roundabouts suggested as Napa County congestion-easers

Ideas abound for denting congestion on Napa County’s roads, from creating Upvalley roundabouts to starting a train-and-shuttle service to reach major wineries.

The Napa County Planning Commission endorsed updates to the county’s General Plan circulation elements this month and passed its recommendations on to the county Board of Supervisors for consideration early next year.

“Most significantly, Napa County must find ways to maintain and improve access, address congestion and serve remote areas of the county while preserving the area’s rural character,” the draft transportation plan said.

But how? Only one person from the public spoke at the meeting, but people wrote letters.

“We are concerned about the direct and cumulative impacts from the expansion of the wine industry and related tourism sector, and without significant mitigative action, the county’s policy goals will not be reachable,” Caltrans District Branch Chief Patricia Maurice wrote to the county.

The draft transportation plan’s idea of “encouraging” tourists and visitors to use public transportation needs to be worded more strongly. The county should form a transportation management agency that includes the biggest trip-generating hotels and wineries and the cities to monitor and enforce aggressive trip reduction targets, Maurice wrote.

“I think those are two really good ideas,” Commissioner Joelle Gallagher said.

Caltrans said congestion-combatting roles could by played by rail shuttles on the Napa Valley Wine Train tracks, by hop-on and hop-off shuttles going to popular destinations and by buses.

Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners wrote that the county cannot build its way out of congestion due to the county’s small size and agricultural nature. The group suggested building roundabouts at some intersections and synchronizing traffic signals at other intersections along Highway 29 and Silverado Trail.

Commission chairwoman Anne Cottrell picked up on the roundabout idea.

“To me, that’s important not only in terms of traffic flow, but rural feeling,” she said.

Napa Valley Vintners also suggested that the county work with Wine Train owners on a possible light-rail service to bring workers up and down the valley at a reasonable cost. This service could charge visitors a higher “hop-on, hop-off” fee.

“There would ideally be shuttles in each of the towns that assist in getting light rail riders from drop-off points to wineries, restaurants and other places of employment in that area,” Stults wrote.

Philip Sales of Napa Valley VineTrail Coalition wrote that the updated General Plan circulation element should emphasize more strongly the building of new Vine Trail sections. The biking-and-walking trail, when finished, is to extend 47 miles from Vallejo up the Napa Valley to Calistoga.

“Over 18,000 students attend education institutions within a half-a-mile of the existing Vine Trail,” Sales wrote. “The Vine Trail provides an alternative to car pools, buses and other automobile forms of transportation.”

Sections of the trail have automatic bike and pedestrian counters. The southern part of the Napa-to-Yountville segment had 87,451 users from January 2017 to January 2018. The northern part had 108,455 users, Sales wrote.

Commissioner Dave Whitmer wanted to get more opinions from people who drive the county’s roads, perhaps by taking comments online. They can offer “pearls of wisdom” from their experiences, he said.

“It’s different advice than you get from the number crunchers and professional transportation consultants,” Whitmer said.

Commissioner Andrew Mazotti asked about self-driving cars.

County Planner Dana Ayers said autonomous vehicles might add traffic to roads by making automobiles more convenient. She takes the bus to American Canyon because she grows frustrated driving in congestion, but wouldn’t face having to hit the brakes and gas pedal repeatedly in a self-driving car.

Traffic congestion has been a hot issue among Napa County residents. Still, the meeting room was almost empty for the Planning Commission discussion, which took place during the commission’s usual Wednesday morning meeting time.

“I’m sorry more people aren’t here,” Commissioner Jeri Hansen said.