Skip to main content
A1 A1
Napa County declines Fire Boss planes for the 2021 wildfire season
  • Updated

After hearing from Cal Fire, Napa County will forego an offer from a private group to base two water-dropping Fire Boss planes here this fire season for early wildfire response.

Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture offered to pay $1.5 million to lease the planes and crew from Dauntless Air. But in the face of Cal Fire opposition, the Napa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday rejected the offer for now.

“This is an awkward spot for us, because we have people offering an incredibly generous offer, but we don’t personally do the firefighting and our firefighters are saying, 'Not so fast,'” county Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said.

Quality journalism doesn't happen without your help. Subscribe today!

The county contracts with Cal Fire to operate the Napa County Fire Department. Cal Fire officials said their own water-dropping helicopters hold more water than the single-engine Fire Boss scooper planes and can refill from smaller reservoirs. The two Fire Boss planes might slow and complicate the helicopter response, Cal Fire said.

Earlier this month, supervisors learned that the agency will base a water-dropping helicopter in Napa County this year, though the helicopter could leave the county on mutual aid missions, Cal Fire officials said.

Flight costs and insurance and other expenses for the two Fire Boss planes would be beyond the $1.5 million offered by Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture to lease the planes and crews. Based on last year’s 90 wildfire dispatches, these extra costs could reach $2 million, county Fire Chief Geoff Belyea said.

Cal Fire officials said the agency wouldn't pay for flight costs until after the Fire Boss planes had operated for four hours. Before then, the cost would be borne by the county.

County Supervisor Diane Dillon expressed concern that the issue has more nuances than might be reaching the public.

“All that’s going to be out there is, ‘You turned it down, you turned down $1.5 million,’” Dillon said. “I don’t believe that does the board a service.”

Mike Hackett on behalf of the Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture said the group thought the offer of the two Fire Boss planes would have been met with open arms. That response instead has come only from the citizens, he said.

Hackett asked supervisors to accept the Vintners/Growers for Responsible Agriculture offer and add the two Fire Boss planes.

“If you do not — and I want this to be heard by all of our citizens — this fire season will be on you,” Hackett told supervisors.

A plane equipped with Fire Boss water apparatus can hold up to 800 gallons to dump on a fire. Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture made the $1.5 million offer in the wake of wildfires that since 2017 have burned about half the county and destroyed about 1,500 structures.

The idea is that the two Fire Boss planes run by Dauntless Air would be ready to take off as soon as a local wildfire broke out, wetting it down to help keep it in check. Planes could scoop water out of Lake Berryessa and Lake Hennessey.

County Supervisor Belia Ramos said the Cal Fire message is that the Fire Boss is the wrong tool.

Board of Supervisors Chairperson Alfredo Pedroza didn’t rule out having Napa County create an initial aerial fire response capability of its own. He said he wants to see how added Cal Fire resources this fire season work out.

Cal Fire earlier this month announced it will base a helicopter in Napa County capable of dropping 1,000 gallons of water on a fire and then scoop more out of local reservoirs. It will also add 46 people to staff a 24-hour fire crew. The cost is $3 million.

Pedroza asked what happens when there are multiple fires in the state and Cal Fire resources are shared.

“If you are having fires everywhere, Napa does need to ask the question, 'Do we need our own air support?'” Pedroza said, leaving the door open to future discussions on the topic.

Pedroza said the Board of Supervisors recently agreed to spend $6.4 million on vegetation management and other steps to try to curb wildfires this year. He challenged any perception that the county isn’t looking at new ways to meet the wildfire threat.

Randy Dunn of Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture welcomed the news that Cal Fire will base a water-dropping helicopter in the county this fire season. The Howell Mountain vintner still wants the Fire Boss planes, saying the county can’t have too much of a wildfire response.

“It is preposterous to think you supervisors would allow Cal Fire to reject our offer of these protective assets,” Dunn told supervisors.

Dillon later said Napa County’s recent wildfires, such as the Tubbs Fire of 2017 and Glass Fire of 2020, began at night when the Fire Boss planes couldn’t fly.

“The angst that exists Upvalley is such that these have become somewhat of an elixir, a cure-all, they’re the thing that is going to make this not happen again,” Dillon said.

The conversation needs to continue, Dillon said. But she too wants to see what added firefighting assets pledged by Cal Fire will do.

Brett L’Esperance, CEO of Dauntless Air, said this year 125 Fire Boss planes will be used around the globe. His firm has 15 Fire Boss planes and has flown more than 15,000 hours fighting fires across the nations since 2007.

States such as Washington, Idaho, Alaska and Minnesota dispatch two Fire Boss planes to a wildfire and send out a helicopter as well. The planes work with helicopters, he said.

“It shouldn’t be an either/or proposition,” he said.

Dunn said in interviews that someone in Cal Fire wanted to kill the Fire Boss idea.

“We want the truth,” Dunn said. “They work for us supposedly and we should know the truth.”

He objected that Cal Fire had three people at a table making a presentation to supervisors, while Fire Boss proponents were limited to three minutes apiece during public comments.

Representing Cal Fire at Tuesday’s meeting was County Fire Chief Belyea, Shana Jones, who is chief of the Cal Fire Sonoma Lake Napa Unit and Dennis Brown, senior chief of aviation for Cal Fire.

“We had very far from a fair shot. How can you have a discussion, how can you learn anything, if you're not able to talk?” Dunn said.

Previously, after talks with Cal Fire Director Thomas Porter, Dunn had thought the Fire Boss idea could come to fruition. But, he said, Porter called him up late Thursday and told him there would be no Fire Boss.

“The fact Cal Fire led us down the road really stinks,” Dunn said.

Porter in an April 16 letter to Napa County wrote that his agency doesn’t support the current concept and will not pursue adding the Fire Boss planes to the agency’s fire protection agreement with the county. He didn’t elaborate.

A letter to Ramos from Cal Fire Local 2881 went further. Union President Tim Edwards wrote that Cal Fire has a fleet of over 60 firefighting aircraft. The aviation program has the highest standards in personnel training and fleet maintenance.

“Private, non-Cal Fire aircraft are not part of these standards and would hamper the established deployment and operational procedures currently in place,” he wrote.

For now, at least, the issue seems settled.

“What an odd situation,” County Supervisor Ryan Gregory said. “Cal Fire is our fire department for all intents-and-purposes and we’re being asked to take on assets that Cal Fire doesn’t support.”

Catch up on Napa County's top news stories
Happy Tails: Photos of Napa County's most-loved pets, April 2021

Napa council again votes for buffer zone around reproductive health clinics
  • Updated

The Napa City Council on Tuesday gave its second and final approval to the creation of a buffer zone outside a Planned Parenthood clinic that has been the hub of anti-abortion demonstrations for more than a decade.

Meeting at City Hall two weeks after approving the ordinance the first time, all five council members again cast votes supporting the plan, which will prohibit shouting, amplification and various “harassing” acts within 30 feet of entrances to reproductive health clinics including the one operated by Planned Parenthood Northern California on 1735 Jefferson St. The ordinance is set to take effect May 20.

Quality journalism doesn't happen without your help. Subscribe today!

Napa’s ordinance does not outlaw vigils or protesting within a clinic’s 30-foot buffer, but prohibits “harassment” of visitors from one hour before the center’s opening to one hour after it closes. Actions classified as harassment include moving within 8 feet of a person who states he or she does not want to be approached; following a person in a way causing “a reasonable person to fear bodily harm” to oneself, another person or to property; shouting at a person; intentionally touching a person without permission; violent or threatening gestures; or blocking the safe passage of pedestrians or vehicles.

Shouting and the use of amplified sound are also banned within 50 feet of a reproductive center’s property lines.

As was the case before the council’s original vote April 6, Tuesday's decision followed another torrent of emails from abortion opponents attacking the rules as a violation of the free-speech rights of sign holders and vigil keepers, as well as by Planned Parenthood supporters describing the rules as a safeguard for clinic visitors against harassment. Ahead of the meeting, 67 people emailed the city to oppose the buffer zone while 27 wrote in favor of it, according to City Clerk Tiffany Carranza.

In a phone call to council members, Dominic Figueroa, the Napa leader of the twice-yearly 40 Days for Life anti-abortion vigil campaign, denied any misbehavior on the part of demonstrators, saying none of the estimated 90 calls to Napa Police from the Planned Parenthood clinic since 2016 have led to a criminal conviction.

“Where is the evidence that we’ve been breaking the law?” he said. “There’s no documentary evidence to show we violated the law on sidewalk, and I don’t understand why a new law is warranted in this case.”

“Peaceful resistance is a time-honored practice in our country,” said another opponent, Debbie Brumley. “As someone who has participated in prayer vigils, in 13 years I have never blocked access to anyone at the facility, nor have I seen anyone else” do so, she told the council.

Afterward, the council approved the buffer zone rules without comment as part of the meeting’s consent calendar, a list of normally routine items voted on as a group. Before their initial vote April 6, council members described the ordinance as a public safety matter, not a free-speech one.

“Protesters say their intent is not to harass or intimidate, to try to be as peaceful as possible,” Councilmember Mary Luros said at the time. “We don’t say you can’t give out info or peacefully pray. We just ask you take a few steps back and not harass or yell at people.”

The restrictions were passed eight months after local Planned Parenthood staff members and volunteers petitioned the city to create a protected area around the Jefferson Street building, which for more than a decade has attracted anti-abortion demonstrations including 40 Days for Life vigils each spring and fall.

Napa’s Planned Parenthood clinic does not list surgical abortions as part of the services provided on site, although RU-486 abortion pills and morning-after contraception are offered.

Ahead of the council’s original vote earlier this month, several Planned Parenthood supporters said the protests on Jefferson Street disturb not only women seeking reproductive health services, but others —  including lower-income residents with few alternatives — visiting the clinic for cancer screenings and other care not related to pregnancies.

A majority of police calls involving the Planned Parenthood building since 2016 have involved complaints of people blocking the clinic entrance and sidewalk as well as allegations of verbal harassment and threats, according to City Manager Steve Potter, Napa’s former police chief.

To create a protective buffer, a clinic’s management must send a written request to Napa Police, and the city would then measure the zone and post boundary signs within 14 days. The ordinance provides for a range of enforcement measures, ranging from a police dispersal order to civil action by a clinic to a misdemeanor charge.

Photos: Former Copia south garden to become Oxbow Yard
Catch up on Napa County's top news stories

Congress diving into policing laws
  • Updated

WASHINGTON — Bolstered with new momentum, Congress is ready to try again to change the nation's policing laws, heeding President Joe Biden's admonition that the guilty verdict in George Floyd's death is "not enough" for a nation confronting a legacy of police violence.

Legislation that was once stalled on Capitol Hill is now closer than ever to consensus, lawmakers of both parties said Wednesday, a day after a Minneapolis jury found former officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death. Behind the scenes, negotiations are narrowing on a compromise for a sweeping overhaul, though passage remains uncertain.

Tuesday's verdict launches "a new phase of a long struggle to bring justice to America," declared Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., in urging passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. "This is the human rights issue in the United States of America."

Meanwhile, the Justice Department is opening a sweeping investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis after Chauvin was convicted there, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Wednesday.

The Justice Department was already investigating whether Chauvin and the other officers involved in Floyd's death violated his civil rights.

"Yesterday’s verdict in the state criminal trial does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis," Garland said.

The new investigation is known as a “pattern or practice" — examining whether there is a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing — and will be a more sweeping review of the entire police department. It may result in major changes to policing in the Minnesota city.

It will examine the use of force by police officers, including force used during protests, and whether the department engages in discriminatory practices. It will also look into the department’s handling of misconduct allegations and its treatment of people with behavioral health issues and will assess the department's current systems of accountability, Garland said.

The Minneapolis police said in a statement that the chief, Medaria Arradondo, "welcomes this investigation" and will fully cooperate with federal prosecutors.

The revived effort in Congress, led by Black lawmakers including Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, comes at a pivotal moment. The nation is on edge over the Floyd case, the deaths of other Black Americans — including a 16-year-old girl brandishing a knife about the time the Minneapolis verdict was announced — and almost a year of protests accusing police of brutal actions that often go unseen.

The guilty verdict for Chauvin was a rare occurrence, not least because in this case an officer's actions were recorded by a bystander and shown to the jury in court. That followed months of the video being played repeatedly on TV, imprinted in the minds of Americans everywhere.

With political pressure mounting on all sides, Biden is urging Congress to plunge back into policing legislation.

"We can't stop here," he said Tuesday after the verdict.

In private, Scott briefed key Republican senators on Wednesday, updating his colleagues on quiet negotiations that have been underway with Democrats for nearly two months. He told reporters he expected to wrap up those talks with the Democrats within two weeks.

"We've made tremendous progress," Scott said on Capitol Hill.

Democrats say they are ready.

"This has to come to a stop," said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest ranking Black elected official in Congress, after the Chauvin verdict.

He and others, including Scott, have told wrenching stories of their own experiences with law enforcement well into their adult lives as elected officials serving in the most powerful corridors of power.

Congress struggled with a police overhaul bill last summer in the immediate aftermath of Floyd's death, but the legislation went nowhere after Democrats and Republicans could not agree to a compromise package.

The House, led by Democrats, has now twice approved a sweeping overhaul, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, that would be the most substantial federally ordered changes to policing in a generation.

The bill would allow police officers to be sued and damages awarded for violating people's constitutional rights, limiting "qualified immunity" protections now in place for law enforcement.

The legislation would ban the use of chokeholds and would create a national databases of police misconduct in an effort to prevent "bad apple" officers from being hired by other departments.

A Republican bill from Scott does not go as far as the House-passed measure. It was blocked last year by Senate Democrats, a fact that Republicans are emphasizing.

The GOP's Justice Act would step up compliance by law enforcement in submitting use-of-force reports to a national database. It also would require compliance reports for no-knock warrants, like the kind officers used to enter the residence when Breonna Taylor was killed in Kentucky.

The Democratic and Republican bills do share some provisions, including a measure making lynching a federal hate crime.

Talks in recent weeks have centered on one of the main differences, the limits on the public's ability to sue law enforcement officers under "qualified immunity." One alternative being discussed would allow police departments, rather than individual officers, to be held liable.

"I think that is a logical step forward," said Scott, putting more of the burden on the department rather than the officer.

Napa to gauge residents’ support for annexing county 'islands' into city
  • Updated

This summer, the estimated 2,100 people living in areas that are enclosed by the city of Napa — but are not part of it — will hear from city leaders about the possibility, and the benefits and costs, of having their homes absorbed into the surrounding town.

Tuesday afternoon, the City Council approved an outreach campaign to gauge residents’ support for annexing more than a dozen “islands” or “doughnut holes,” ranging from entire neighborhoods to single lots, that remain part of unincorporated Napa County despite being fully or mostly within the city boundaries.

The project may be the prelude to an absorption that could widen access to city storm drainage, sidewalk construction, and potentially lower service costs — along with the ability to vote for the mayor and City Council — to areas left behind by decades of annexations nearby.

Quality journalism doesn't happen without your help. Subscribe today!

The campaign is expected to run from July to September and will include city mailings, door-to-door canvassing, and virtual meetings on Zoom in English and Spanish, Planning Manager Erin Morris said before the vote.

“It seems to make sense to move forward, if for no other reason than to see if annexation is good or bad if people want it or don’t want it,” Councilmember Mary Luros said before the unanimous approval.

The Napa County Progressive Alliance took up faster annexation as a cause during the 2020 election campaign, the first in which voters selected City Council members to represent one of four districts rather than representing the city at large.

David Campbell, who finished second in the race for a 2nd District seat in west Napa, made the strongest push in favor of absorbing county enclaves including West Pueblo, which he said would empower more Latino and lower-income residents by giving them votes in future mayoral and council races.

On Tuesday, members of the Progressive Alliance again pushed for the fastest possible absorption of non-city areas, arguing that even a three-month study would delay progress enough to deprive residents of a chance to vote in the 2022 city elections or have election districts fairly redrawn based on 2020 census results.

“This is a very cynical survey you’re doing, knowing you’re going to do it already,” said Gary Orton, an alliance member, calling on Napa to instead draw on results of a previous survey more than a decade ago. “The only consequence of your delay is to disenfranchise people even more. This is not right.”

However, one resident of the Pueblo-Linda Vista area urged caution and a thorough study to determine whether large numbers of his neighbors prefer life outside the city border.

“While I agree it’s not organized, the opposition does exist,” said Alex Weeks, who predicted annexation could face resistance due to tighter building codes, city fees and sidewalk additions that would cut into homeowners’ property. “… The city needs to be aware of both sides of the coin. We need to make sure the community outreach is two-sided so people can make an informed decision.”

In addition to judging the interest from residents in becoming part of the city, Napa’s outreach drive also should include determining what public works will actually be possible — including which areas actually have room for sidewalks, drainage and other improvements — to let would-be city dwellers best decide the benefit for themselves, said Councilmember Painter.

Initial city survey efforts will focus on reaching homes in eight of the largest islands, according to Morris, including the two largest non-city neighborhoods — an 87-acre area near West Pueblo and Linda Vista avenues with about 1,400 residents, and a 32-acre area where 541 people live near Imola Avenue and Parrish Road. A second phase of Napa’s outreach will concentrate on smaller county enclaves in west Napa.

Reaching county residents by all possible means will be crucial to accurately learning their willingness to become city residents, said Councilmember Beth Painter, citing a 2010 survey by LAFCO that drew a response from only 3% of 2,000 people contacted. “When someone just gets a flier in the mail — English or Spanish — they’ll think, ‘I don’t know if I’m interested in this,’” she said.

A proposal would first go to the council, whose approval would forward the plan to Napa County’s Local Agency Formation Commission, which regulates such county-to-city transfers. LAFCO would then host a public hearing on shifting country-controlled lands into the city before giving final approval.

An annexation proposed by the city rather than a neighborhood’s residents or property owners would enable LAFCO to approve it without the normally required protest process, which allows landholders to veto a move of their properties into a city, according to Morris.

Under an annexation drive launched by property owners or residents, other owners could defeat a move to city authority if more than half of them within the targeted zone file written objections. (The faster track is the creation of a 2000 California law that also exempts a city from $6,000 to $8,000 of the application fees that LAFCO would charge voters or property owners.)

At least 13 sites are under county control but surrounded by Napa city territory on more than half their perimeter. Eight of those so-called “islands” are completely ensconced within the city, with the largest, near West Pueblo and Linda Vista, comprising more than 500 housing lots.

In addition to being ineligible to vote in Napa city elections, those living in county enclaves generally pay higher fees for monthly services than those living within the city, according to LAFCO officials. The agency has released a list of expenses it said would total about $62 less per year — $1,912 versus $1,974 —  after annexation. These residents would have cheaper water service, more expensive trash collection and sewer rates the same as before.

Earlier, the city commissioned a report studying the possible absorption of West Pueblo-Linda Vista as a starting point before looking into annexation of other county islands, officials said in November. The move follows a 2017 offer by LAFCO to work with city officials on a faster track to annexation, citing more efficient services and political empowerment.

Properties surrounding Linda Vista and West Pueblo gradually were absorbed into the city with the construction of numerous single-family homes after World War II. The first of 26 annexations in the 87-acre zone were recorded in 1959 and picked up speed during the 1960s, with the most recent shift into city territory taking place in 2014.

Photos: This fixer upper was Napa's least expensive home sold in March
Catch up on Napa County's top news stories