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Fire overview
Wind predictions bring Napa County wildfire uncertainties

Where Napa County’s next wildfire evacuations come all depends on weather conditions that are predicted to change quickly.

“We’re at the mercy of the wind,” county Supervisor Ryan Gregory said at a Wednesday morning Napa County press conference on the fire situation.

Napa’s nightmare continued on Wednesday with the focus on the Mount Veeder area and on Calistoga. Both are under mandatory evacuation orders, with the Calistoga order starting as a partial evacuation and later being extended to the entire city.

As if the Atlas, Partrick and Tubbs fires weren’t bad enough, Napa County must now contend with the Nuns Fire. The latter crossed into the county from Sonoma County to threaten the rural Mount Veeder area and cause worry among residents in the northwest part of the city of Napa.

On Tuesday evening, dozens of people gathered on hills in Alston Park to observe a thick cloud of brown smoke that appeared ready to smite Mount Veeder. Cal Fire ordered evacuations along rural Mount Veeder Road and along rural Dry Creek Road as far south as Linda Vista Avenue, a half-mile from Napa subdivisions.

The Nuns Fire was smoldering along Mount Veeder Road near the Oakville Grade on Wednesday morning and it hadn’t reached Dry Creek Road, Gregory said. That’s some seven miles north of city limits.

The National Weather Service predicted gusty north winds would start Wednesday evening and last into Thursday afternoon.

“When the north wind comes in, the fire will start moving again,” said Gregory, who is keeping track of the Nuns Fire because it burned in his supervisorial district.

Some residents in northwest Napa began packing Tuesday evening in anticipation that the evacuation call might come during the middle of the night. Some people watered their lawns and one man sprayed down a roof line.

“There was a lot of confusion and heartache last night about that,” Gregory said. “No part of the city of Napa is under an evacuation order (as of Wednesday morning). But stay on your toes, because with this wind changing, there may be some.”

The city of Napa had five police officers patrolling Browns Valley on Tuesday night, Mayor Jill Techel said. They were to drive slowly and answer questions from residents.

“We’re trying to be out there so people can see us and feel they can get information directly from the source,” Techel said.

Cal Fire maps also show the smaller Norrbom Fire in-between the Nuns and Partrick fires. Fire officials said the three fires could merge and could also merge with two other Sonoma County fires as far to the north as Santa Rosa.

Meanwhile, the Tubbs Fire, which has devastated a portion of Santa Rosa, went up the slopes of Mount St. Helena on Tuesday. Half the town was evacuated between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. on Wednesday. An order to evacuate the full town came Wednesday afternoon, with residents directed to a new shelter at American Canyon High School.

Flames were visible from Calistoga Tuesday night as one spur of Mount St. Helena burned. The evacuation center at the Napa County Fairgrounds was closed.

Napa Supervisor Diane Dillon wasn’t certain where the fire was on Wednesday morning, but said the expected gusty north winds Wednesday night could blow the fire into the city, she said.

Dillon wants people to be ready. She said Napa County wants to avoid such scenes as in Santa Rosa in the predawn Monday hours, where residents in subdivisions had little warning to leave before the Tubbs Fire roared through their neighborhoods.

With all of the wind uncertainty as Thursday neared, the county advised people living near the fire areas to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

“The winds are moving around. Just stay tuned, “ Gregory said.

Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said predicted, gusty north winds will likely lead to growth of fires and cause challenges.

The good news is the county is beginning to receive additional firefighting resources coming in from throughout the state. That brings the opportunity to increase fire perimeter control, he said.

Napa families tell of agonizing decisions: to evacuate or to stay

Susan Freedman was just one of many people waiting in line at Old Soscol Way and Trancas Street in Napa Tuesday to find out whether or not her home was intact.

“We’re remarkably calm, I think,” Freedman said, holding back tears. She’s heard different things from different people, she said. Some have told her that the neighborhood went untouched, others have said it’s been devastated. “We’re prepared to deal with whatever we have to deal with.”

Freedman said that she and her husband had been “sound asleep” when they heard the pounding on their door about 4 a.m. Monday. The couple grabbed their dog, Django, and left their home in Monticello Park.

“I’m glad we just got in the car and went because if I realized how close it was I would’ve freaked out,” Freedman said.

She and her husband had stopped by the blocked intersection twice on Tuesday, trying to find out how and when they would be able to get back to their neighborhood to check on their house. The third time, they decided to just wait in a long line manned by deputies from the Napa County Sheriff’s Office.

“We’re escorting residents of Silverado, Atlas Peak and Soda Canyon to check on animals, livestock and get any type of medication they might need,” Deputy Don Maiden said.

“A number of people I’ve talked to – they’re hoping that they have medications and animals to even find; some are finding that they have nothing,” Maiden said.

The escort service started at about 1 p.m. when deputies began taking up to three vehicles at a time. When two of the vehicles went rogue, though, the service changed. Instead, deputies were using their vehicles to take individuals one at a time to their homes — that is, if they had a proof of address.

“You need be able to justify getting out there,” Maiden told the growing crowd.

Deputies were concerned with public safety — many of the places people needed to get to still had embers burning, downed power lines and other road blocks.

On Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office addressed rumors of looters roaming the abandoned streets.

“We have hundreds of law enforcement people in the area from multiple jurisdictions from around the Bay Area in all areas that have been evacuated, Capt. Keith Behlmer said Wednesday. The extra aid is going toward street patrol, ensuring that no looters get into homes or businesses, he said.

“It seems to be working,” Behlmer said. There had only been one arrest and even that one, which occurred on Monday, he said, may not actually have been a looter.

Susan Rice and her husband, Mark, who did not want to be identified by his last name for fear of looters, were among one of the first families to attain access to their home on Soda Canyon Road on Tuesday. They had been able to get in with their vehicle.

“It doesn’t look like it’s going to be hospitable up there for a while,” Mark said. At least half of the homes on the street look like they had been burned, he said, but not theirs. “There’s pockets that it didn’t touch and pockets that were just devastated.” Mark estimated that at least 15 utility poles were down.

The couple was granted permission to check on their home because they believed they had two Arabian horses and a cat waiting for them. Rice also needed her oxygen equipment.

When they arrived at their home on the top of the hill, the cat, “Kitty Cat,” came when called but the horses – “ShiShi” and “Maddie” – were gone.

“I’m under the assumption that they had been rescued,” Rice said, hopeful. The deputy on site informed her that many large animals were taken to the Solano County Fairgrounds in Vallejo.

The horses were left behind when the neighborhood was evacuated late Sunday night, Rice said.

“We tried to drive out but the road was engulfed,” Mark said. They turned back and waited at the top of the hill where they were flown out on a helicopter, he said. “They did an amazing job getting us out – it was a pretty rough helicopter (ride) flying over the flames.”

“You’re just sort of in a stupor at that point,” Rice said, “in a kind of state of shock.”

Monica West, Victor Rousse and their two children were in a different situation compared to others standing in line at the intersection – they wanted to bring stuff back to their house and water to neighbors they knew hadn’t evacuated.

Before she was told of the fire via text, West said she had started to look up the weather, thinking it was raining, but it had been the sound of falling ashes.

“I thought it was all going up,” Rousse said. Instead, he said, their neighborhood, which is only about a block away from Atlas Peak, went unscathed. The family even had time to fill their car. Now they’re staying at the River Terrace Inn, which offered a discount to evacuees.

“We just want to get back to normal,” Rousse said. “Getting back to work is part of that.”

Deputies continued helping residents get to their homes on Wednesday until about 4 p.m.

The roadblocks that were set up on Tuesday didn’t make sense to Estee Avenue resident Matt Sergeson, who has been sleeping at home despite his proximity to the fire.

“I didn’t think it was gonna come as far as it did,” he said Tuesday afternoon as he debated whether or not to leave the area. He wants to stay in his home with his two cats despite the lack of electricity, Internet and water, but he needed to make a trip to the store to get supplies like food and water.

If he left, though he wouldn’t be allowed back in.

The most critical thing he needed, he said, was water to flush the toilet.

“I should have a mask, but if I go get one I can’t get back in,” he said. Officers nearby were fine with him staying, he said.

On Monday and Tuesday, Sergeson was getting all his information from listening to the radio in his car, which thankfully, he said, had a full tank of gas. He knows of only one person who may take him in, he said, but wasn’t sure if he could since he hasn’t been able to call anyone. Otherwise, if he has to leave, he said he’ll try to find a hotel.

“I’m running out of options,” he said.

Seeking shelter
Calistoga evacuations flood Napa shelter at Napa Valley College

Assessing the crowded Napa Valley College shelter Wednesday afternoon, Heather Fieser, 74, had one conclusion: “I think they emptied Calistoga here.”

The shelter, located in the college gym, swelled overnight to 688 people once a mandatory evacuation was issued in the pre-dawn Wednesday to nearly half of Calistoga, said Jody Kimbrel, shelter manager with the Red Cross. Later in the day, the entire city of Calistoga was evacuated.

“It was insane,” said Mariano Guzman, 19, describing the scene outside his family’s apartment building as people packed up. He remembered the sound of slamming trunks.

Guzman’s family had packed their belongings in the car on Sunday night, he said, when they could see a red glow coming over the trees.

Although he had arrived at the Napa shelter in the middle of the night, Guzman said he hardly slept.

“Some people were freaking out because who wouldn’t be in this situation?” Guzman said. “We don’t know anything about what’s going on in Calistoga.”

Calistoga resident Samuel Chino said that the TV news had reported that there were homes burning in Calistoga around noon Wednesday, but his friend, who was still in Calistoga, told him that nothing was on fire there.

“I’m a little concerned,” he said because he had no idea what was true. “I have more than 24 hours awake.”

“I think the community is very strong,” he said calmly. It’s OK to lose material possessions, he said, as long as lives aren’t lost.

Local taco trucks lined up in front of the college gymnasium on Wednesday while residents continued to drop off clothing and food donations to the Red Cross, the shelter operator. Other than eating and sleeping, evacuees staying in the shelter gathered around on black plastic folding chairs to watch television news on a single flat-screen TV.

Children were given coloring books and board games – a few little ones ran around chasing balloons moments after announcements were made for children not to run inside the shelter. Meanwhile, a toddler slept soundly on an adult-size cot with a jacket draped over her like a blanket.

Older children gathered in groups outside.

Jatziry Rivas, 11, Marco Maldonado, 12, and Brian Gonzalez, 12, were sitting on some steps eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and talking.

“This is our second day here,” Maldonado said. They had arrived about 4 a.m. Wednesday – it was now about 1 p.m. He guessed they’d be at the shelter all week.

“We could see it,” he said of the fire that started on Tubbs Lane. “It was kinda far, but still noticeable.”

“Some of the high school burned down,” Rivas said. She was immediately told by another Calistoga youth that that was only a rumor.

Rivas said that she and her friends know a lot of people at the shelter since it’s about all of Calistoga. Some people, though, went to motels in Vallejo, she said.

Amanda Garcia and her parents had stayed in the parking lot of the shelter overnight after leaving their home in Angwin. They wanted to get ahead of the fire, just in case, and planned on driving to her brother’s house in Riverside Wednesday afternoon.

“Last night all of this was empty,” she said of the lot.

“This morning when we woke up, we were surrounded,” added her father, Cesar Garcia. By 11 a.m., the parking lot facing Highway 221 was nearly full, packed with personal vehicles, trailers and RVs.

Since they left before their home was in any danger, they had some time to pack important things like photographs and documents.

“We had time – thank God – to grab pictures from our three kids when they were little,” Cesar Garcia said.

The family lost electricity on Sunday night and had temporarily been benefitting from a generator that Pacific Union College had on-site, but when that flickered for a moment on Tuesday, they decided to head south.

“A lot of students left, too,” Amanda Garcia said. Despite her calm demeanor as she rearranged items in the family car, Garcia said that she was “freaking out” inside.

“It’s hard and kind of scary,” she said. It helps knowing how to react and what to be prepared with – things like a “go bag” and lots of water bottles, she said.

“You never know where the fire’s going to go – that’s the problem,” her father said.

Craig VanDale hadn’t been evacuated either. He “bailed out” of his home in the Avenues days ago. He and his 13-year-old son, Jacob, and their dog, Buddy, had been sleeping in his SUV. But they had run out of food and it got pretty cold on Tuesday night.

“He thinks we’re camping,” he said of his son who is happy to be out of school for a few days.

Wednesday afternoon, VanDale said that he wasn’t sure yet what he thought about the shelter or if he and his son would actually sleep there.

“It’s a madhouse,” he said. “It’s stressful when you get in until you get signed in, then it’s like ‘I don’t want to stay here.’ We might stay in the parking lot if they let us.”

“I didn’t even know we could fit that many,” said shelter manager Kimbrel. Later that afternoon, overflow of about 100 people were scheduled to be transported to a shelter at St. Apollinaris Catholic Church in north Napa, which had already been housing a dozen evacuees since Monday.

There were more than 300 people staying at CrossWalk Church on First Street. The gym and the sactuary were both full of cots Wednesday afternoon, according to representatives with the church.

A fourth shelter in the county was opened at American Canyon High School following a full evacuation of the City of Calistoga at about 3 p.m.

137 Veterans Home residents evacuated from Yountville, while others return

YOUNTVILLE — The Veterans Home of California, the state’s largest home for retired military members and their spouses, began a total evacuation of residents and staff Tuesday night after wildfires edged closer to Yountville — only to have most of them brought back within hours.

As of late morning Wednesday, the 137 Veterans Home residents who were moved from the Holderman building’s skilled nursing center were being cared for at 24 different care centers, mostly in the Bay Area but also including a Sacramento facility and another Veterans Home nursing center in Redding, according to June Iljana, a CalVet spokeswoman.

Initially, the Veterans Home assembled a wheeled fleet that included dozens of Napa County Vine buses, private cars and ambulances from at least four counties as night fell, in preparation for carrying all of the more than 1,000 residents from the 133-year-old campus. Residents and staff members on the grounds reported many of the evacuees were to be taken south to Napa Valley College, which opened its gymnasium to those fleeing a cluster of wildfires that erupted Sunday night.

However, the plans later changed, and the state Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates the facility, announced on Twitter that only those in its skilled nursing facility would remain off campus as a precaution.

“All residents who have voluntarily evacuated the Home are welcome to return. We understand your concern for your loved ones. This is a rapidly developing situation, and we are doing our best to keep you informed,” officials said.

Iljana said the Napa County Office of Emergency Services instructed CalVet to move residents off the grounds after Cal Fire determined an eastward shift of the Nuns Fire from Sonoma County could threaten the facility. Residents were returned after winds shifted and reduced the danger, she said Wednesday morning.

“We are not out of danger in this situation, and that building (Holderman) is difficult to evacuate because of the age of the building and the age of its residents, many of whom are not mobile,” she said. “We did not want to leave this to chance. (The fire risk) is hard on the residents. Our greatest concern is the burden it’s been on our residents.”

A social worker is based at the Veterans Home’s incident command center to take calls from family members seeking information on residents. Inquiries can be made around the clock at 707-944-4700.

Earlier on Tuesday, Abraham Stewart, an incident commander at the Veterans Home, said he and home staff were notified at 3 p.m. by the state Office of Emergency Services of the possible need to clear out the premises because the age and physical frailty of many of its residents would make a quick flight from danger difficult.

Vehicles began arriving in Yountville at 4 p.m., and had been slated to continue ferrying evacuees through the night and into early Wednesday morning, said Stewart, an operations manager for the Falck Northern California emergency transport service. Ambulances traveled to the Yountville home from Napa, Sonoma, Alameda and Santa Clara counties.

The shelter at Napa Valley College, where up to 110 people were staying on its first day, is not equipped to care for those with serious medical issues, said college spokesman Doug Ernst.

As of midday Wednesday, no evacuation orders have been announced for the town of Yountville east of the Veterans Home.

During Tuesday night’s evacuation, public buses were lined up outside various buildings at the Veterans Home, where the sharp tang of wood smoke pierced the air. Clusters of men and women were queued to wait their turn – many in motorized carts and some clutching satchels in their bags containing a few belongings. Orderlies at the home stood by some of the passengers-to-be.

While some residents were unable to move quickly toward the waiting buses, others would not.

“Sir, come on! For your safety, you need to leave the grounds!” a deputy implored a man outside the Holderman building, a former hospital.

“I’m really sorry,” the man said quietly. “I believe in my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and I believe he will protect me.”

“And we want to protect you,” replied an orderly holding a wheelchair. “We just want to make sure you’re safe.”

Earlier, the Napa Valley Transportation Authority had announced the suspension of all Vine bus service until further notice to devote all vehicles to the Veterans Home evacuation. On Wednesday, the NVTA said a partial bus schedule was scheduled to resume.