Alma Fuentes of Napa was watching the movie “Blade Runner” that Sunday night at the Century theater in south Napa when she first smelled the smoke.
“What is that?” she asked her husband, Tito Fuentes Jr.
Stepping out into the lobby, she talked to the attendant, who mentioned a fire somewhere in Napa.
It was about midnight, Fuentes said. Leaving the theater, she looked into the sky and saw the moon glowing an unnatural orange color.
“I said, ‘This is not good.’”
Fuentes immediately thought of her family compound, located at 5950 Haire Lane off of Highway 12, between Domaine Carneros and the Stornetta Dairy property.
The 6,000-square-foot house is home to seven members of her extended family plus the family’s business, Celebrity Haven, a residential care facility.
Six seniors live in the same large house with Fuentes family members. Celebrity Haven is owned by Alma Fuentes’ mother, Gemma Eugenio.
Alma Fuentes couldn’t know it at the time, but everything was about to change for the Fuentes family and their residents.
In just a few short hours on Oct. 9, the southern edge of what would become the Nuns Fire raged through the area, destroying three out of the five homes on Haire Lane. The Feuntes family’s home, business, a music recording studio, cars and almost all of their belongings are now ashes.
On the night of the fires, Fuentes and her husband, Tito, sped down Old Sonoma Road on the way back to the family’s 10-acre property.
Looking toward the horizon, “All I see is red beyond Henry Road and Artesa Winery,” as the flames illuminated the hills, she said.
“I’m in disbelief,” she recalled thinking.
Driving up Haire Lane, the couple could see a neighbor leaving the area and driving a trailer full of horses.
“You gotta get evacuated,” the neighbor told them. “Those fires are coming fast!”
Fuentes ran into the home to wake up her mother and start evacuating the home.
“We have to go!” she told her mother.
Next, two sheriff’s deputies in trucks arrived, she said.
“You gotta get out NOW!” they insisted.
“It’s just crazy at this point,” she said. Residents were getting dressed, dogs needed to be collected and embers were blowing everywhere, she said. A total of 15 people, including caregivers for the residents, were at the home that night.
Looking back as she was leaving the compound, “All I see is red behind us.” She realized, “It just got real.”
Stopping at the Stanly Lane pumpkin patch to regroup, the family and first responders helped take care of the residents and assess their medical needs. One resident, who was on hospice care, was sent to Queen of the Valley Medical Center.
Eventually, the group made their way to the emergency shelter at CrossWalk church.
“We were there all night trying to figure out what to do,” she said.
Arrangements were soon made for the residents to relocate with their family members or find temporary homes at other senior care facilities.
Around 10:30 a.m. that Monday, a nephew who had made his way back to Haire Lane called with the news they all feared.
“Our house is gone,” the nephew told Alma Fuentes.
Tito Fuentes, Jr. headed to the property.
“There is nothing,” he reported back. “Everything is burned to the ground. Everything is completely gone.”
“We lost everything except our lives,” Alma Fuentes said.
Today, some of the Fuentes family members are now staying at Alma Fuentes’ brother’s home in American Canyon. They started a GoFundMe.com page for people willing to help with their recovery.
“I wake up sometimes and I say this has gotta be a really bad dream,” she said.
“That home has always been our home base,” and a place for many family gatherings.
The family has had the home and care center since 1989. Alma and Tito Fuentes, Jr. have lived on the property full time since 2012.
“We are all homeless right now,” she said. “It’s devastating. And devastating for my mom.”
“She’s just in shock,” Fuentes said of her mother.
Alma Fuentes’ mother, age 76, told her daughter, “It’s like your dad dying all over again.”
Her father passed away in 2012. The property “was my dad’s paradise,” she said.
“There was so much lost. We are grateful for our lives but it’s just starting over.”
One bit of good news is that the Fuentes’ had stored some belongings, including baseball memorabilia, in a shipping container that survived the blaze. Tito Fuentes, Jr. is the son of retired major league baseball player Tito Fuentes, Sr.
Besides the loss of their home, the family is also facing the loss of income from the board and care facility.
“Not only is your residence taken away from you but your livelihood. Everything is on hold,” she said.
And even though the home is gone, in the meantime they still have to pay the mortgage.
They will rebuild, Fuentes said. “We have to,” she said. “It would kill my mom not to.”
The family has already started the insurance claim process.
“We’re trying to figure out if we could set up temporary housing,” she said. “It’s all up in the air right now. We’re kind of at the mercy of the insurance company.”
Neighbors and friends are helping feed the sheep at the property that managed to survive the fires.
“This community is so strong,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Fuentes said she remains focused on her mother.
“I’m just hurting so bad for my mom. She’s worked so many years. She put every penny into this property. It’s tough.”
Her mother cried when she heard the home was destroyed, said Fuentes.
“The first thing she said was, ‘Your father’s ashes. I couldn’t even get your father’s ashes.’”
Consoling her mother, Fuentes told her, “But mom, dad would only want to be buried there. His ashes are where they belong.”
Since wildfires began devastating broad swaths of Napa and Sonoma counties two weeks ago, many of the people laboring to fight the flames have called the Napa Valley Expo home. On Sunday, some 40 county residents made a public house call on the remaining firefighters to express their thanks – with signs, placards and cards.
“Thank you first responders, “God bless firemen,” or “NAPA LOVES YOU!” proclaimed the messages in marker pens, paint and cardboard. As ladder trucks and firefighters’ utility trucks eased out of the Expo parking lot onto Third Street, honks and sirens from the vehicles triggered loud cheers and whoops from their well-wishers, grateful that their homes and businesses still stood when so many others in the North Bay had been destroyed.
“Woooooo! Thank you! Thank you!” came the shouts toward a trio of white pickup trucks that drove away from the fairground, loaded with some of the tents that had been firefighters’ quarters for days.
This show of gratitude had begun with a flurry of Facebook posts by Nicole Marino, a Napa photographer – and the granddaughter and niece of firemen in Newton, Massachusetts – who looked for a the most public way possible for her and other residents to show emergency responders what their efforts had meant to them – before more of them left for their hometowns.
“The hardest part was feeling guilty, leaving the community when the fire was closing in, said Marino, who decamped to Martinez and Benicia as acrid wildfire smoke clogged the Napa Valley skies for days. “This is my contribution; this is what I can do. … I know of lot of them have left town, but I hope they can be appreciated for all their efforts.”
With the Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs fires largely contained, many of the fire agencies joining the fight from other parts of California and the West Coast already have driven home. But the Expo grounds still showed the signs of heavy use – trucks and canopies filled with boxed goods, a bank of seven port-a-johns lining a walkway, and dome tents on the small lawn devoted to kiddie rides during the Town & Country Fair.
The memory of night-to-night uncertainty whether to stay or leave Napa still lingered with some well-wishers.
“We were packed; we were ready to go if we got that knock on the door. We slept in the living room that (first) week. From the bedroom we could see the fire past Alston Park,” said Vicenta Segura, who arrived at the Expo with her 20-year-old daughter Jasmine and her 6-year-old son Isaac.
The boy not only toted a placard of his own making, but sported a costume fireman’s uniform and helmet for the occasion. In marker strokes on the cardboard were hills, daubs of orange fire, a sun filtered red by heavy smoke – and two red hearts flanking, in crooked capitals, “THANK YOU.”
Then, around noon, a ladder truck in Stars and Stripes livery pulled up to the curb. Out stepped several men in the dark blue uniforms and caps of Napa Fire, whose audience swarmed them to pass them hand-drawn ‘thank you’ cards, pose for photos with their children – or hug each firefighter in a row.
“This community is great, very gracious,” said Napa Fire Capt. Ty Becerra, who spent 12 hours on duty Oct. 8 and 9 covering for other firefighters who were sent to the front lines. “Even though it’s just a small part of the community here, we appreciate it a tremendous amount.”
As the sign-wavers’ hour-long show of appreciation wound down, other Napans were gathering farther west on Third Street at Billco’s Billiards and Darts, preparing to use music to aid Napans – and firefighters – in need of help after the wine country fires.
For 10 hours, the downtown billiards pub would host the Napa Strong Benefit Concert, which the local alt-country rock singer Shelby Lanterman had organized together with a slate of Bay Area musicians.
“The day after the fires started, I was watching the news on TV with my family, and it popped into my mind that I needed to do something to help,” said the 23-year-old Lanterman, whose relatives are friends of Billco’s owners. “Well, I’m a musician – I put on concerts all the time – so I decided I could do it and benefit the victims,” she said, adding the concert had a donation target of about $5,000.
During the marathon gig, organizers steered all $5 cover charges and a dollar from each beer sale to the nonprofit Go Fund a Hero to benefit first responders whose homes were lost to the North Bay fires. A few feet away, several pool tables had become displays for wines, craft beers and apparel for a silent auction benefitng the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund, which the Napa Valley Vintners group founded after the 2014 earthquake.
A hangout in Napa’s heart seemed the perfect venue for a local benefit to Jake Lake, a sound engineer at the concert who also was to perform later that night as a banjoist and vocalist with the Sorry Lot.
“Most of our work is in the city,” he said, “and we like to give back when we get the chance.”
California’s newest fund for road maintenance may help extend the life of Napa streets – starting with those in neighborhoods away from the main routes.
The city’s Public Works department plans to use the fruits of higher fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees to maintain more than 15 miles of streets in six neighborhoods, under a plan approved earlier this month by the City Council.
The work will draw on $455,000 the state is expected to provide Napa in the 2017-18 fiscal year through its Road Maintenance and Rehabilitation Account. This was launched by the passage of Senate Bill 1 in April and will provide local governments with $15 billion in the next decade.
In Napa, various residential streets and cul-de-sacs will receive crack sealing and other treatments in an effort to extend pavement life, Public Works Director Jacques LaRochelle wrote the council in a memorandum. All streets featured in the project have been repaved either through the city’s capital improvement budget or its annual 10-mile-a-year paving campaign, and have surfaces that are due for their first round of maintenance, he said.
The streets targeted for state funding serve neighborhoods north and south of Redwood Road as well as Browns Valley, west Napa, the “alphabet” streets west of Jefferson Street, River Park Boulevard and the Napa Valley Commons.
For 2018-19, the state road upkeep fund should provide Napa another $1.3 million, LaRochelle wrote.
Besides helping cities catch up to deferred road maintenance, the state reserve also includes money for traffic signals, railroad grade separators and other safety projects, bringing its total payout to $26 billion over 10 years. To build the fund, California is boosting fuel taxes by 12 cents a gallon on gasoline and 20 cents on diesel, and adding a new vehicle fee ranging from $25 to $175 depending on the vehicle’s value.
Paving and upkeep paid for by SB 1 money is separate from road work covered by Measure T, which Napa County voters passed in 2012 and which takes effect next summer. The measure redirects an expiring half-cent sales tax for flood-control projects toward road repair, a maneuver forecast to bring the city Napa another $6 million annually.
Napa County is fishing for companies to redevelop and operate five Lake Berryessa resorts and it’s using a slick brochure as bait.
About 10 million people live within 100 miles of Lake Berryessa and many of them like outdoor recreation. The region is one of the nation’s most prosperous, the brochure says.
Yet, despite the presence of outdoor lovers with money to spend, the brochure contends that the supply of high-quality lake resorts greatly lags demand.
Then comes the hook: “Lake Berryessa could represent one of the most untapped opportunities for quality, lake-orientated resort development in all of California.”
Redeveloped resorts would have marinas, campsites, picnic sites and RV areas. Those were standbys at the old resorts conceived and built in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
But the brochure encourages would-be developers to go beyond old-school thinking. A 21st-century Lake Berryessa could have hotels, an amphitheater, glamping, a nine-hole golf course, a safari park, night entertainment, a sports academy, wedding venues, cottages and a zip line.
The county is working with Ragatz Realty, an international firm that focuses on the resort industry. Deputy County Executive Officer Molly Rattigan said Ragatz sent out the Lake Berryessa marketing materials to more than 10,000 contacts.
Would-be developers will tour the five targeted Lake Berryessa resort sites – Putah Canyon, Monticello Shores, Berryessa Point, Spanish Flat and Steele Canyon. The original tour date of Oct. 18 was postponed because of the worst wildfire disaster in county history and will take place in November.
Those who like what they see will have until Dec. 14 to submit request-for-information-and-interest applications.
The county Board of Supervisors will use the results to decide whether to continue fishing or cut bait on Lake Berryessa concessionaire management. Rattigan said the Berryessa issue could come before supervisors early next year.
Supervisors will weigh whether the county can succeed where the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has failed over the past decade. They will decide whether Napa County enters into a partner agreement with the federal agency, which oversees the lake shoreline.
If Napa County and the Bureau of Reclamation agree to terms, the county would take over the stalled resort redevelopment effort. The county would return to the interested concessionaires and ask for formal redevelopment and operation proposals.
“Lake Berryessa has great potential,” county Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said. “But we haven’t had the terms or structure that have allowed true success to happen from the development side.”
Unlike the Bureau of Reclamation, the county can market the lake to potential developers/operators using a firm such as Ragatz Realty. The Bureau has had trouble finding concessionaires to its liking by simply releasing requests for proposals.
The brochure anticipates some apprehensions that resort developers might have about Lake Berryessa. Perhaps they fear high land prices, the prospect of lengthy environmental studies, costly zoning battles and the threat of litigation from environmental groups.
“Napa County, like most prime resort destinations in California, is a challenging place to pursue new development,” the brochure says.
But at Lake Berryessa resort sites, no rezoning or county general plan amendments are required. The Bureau of Reclamation has started environmental studies. Napa County officials support proper resort development. The county might be willing to offer a variety of financial incentives, the brochure says.
“Lake Berryessa is one of the largest and most attractive freshwater lakes in California,” it says.
Rattigan said the county has talked to several interested developers/operators. It is meeting with Bureau of Reclamation officials on a regular basis.
“This is the opportunity for the county to market the Berryessa opportunity,” Rattigan said.
The federal reservoir in eastern Napa County has seven resorts. Only Markley Cove and Pleasure Cove are operating at full strength.
The other five have been caught in limbo for almost a decade after previous concessionaire contracts expired. The Bureau of Reclamation cleared infrastructure so the sites could be redeveloped.
Spanish Flat, Steele Canyon and Putah Canyon are operating in stripped-down fashion on interim contracts. Berryessa Point and Monticello Shores are closed. All five are awaiting their long-stalled rebirths.