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Killer tree

The tree behind a home on Dry Creek Road that nearly fell on reporter Maria Sestito and the fire chief that was speaking to her about fire-weakened trees.

“Are you OK?”

“Are you safe?”

“Is your home in danger?”

These are the questions that I and I’m sure a lot of people have gotten in the last two weeks as wildfires raged in the North Bay. I’ve gotten similar questions before when something is happening in Southern California – my friends and family on the East Coast aren’t all up on California geography or, perhaps, they forget exactly where I live and work.

This time the answer was complicated.

“No, my home is not in danger.” I live in Vallejo, where air quality was poor and ash covered my car, but safe from flames. I work in Napa, though, and “Yes, I still have to go to work.”

The point of my job is to go in when everyone else is evacuating, so how do I tell my mom that I’m really safe when I’m driving into areas that are still burning?

I’m not a great liar, so I went with honesty. That led me to tell my mom that I was driving by utility poles on fire, walking on debris of burned down homes and being attacked by trees.

That’s right, trees were out to get me.

The first day – Monday, usually my day off – I headed up Atlas Peak Road and tried to get as close as I could to the fire. Road conditions were bad, but I made it pretty far before encountering a tree blocking the entire path in front of me. Only driving my little Honda Fit, there was no option but to turn around. I took my time heading back down the hill, making sure to be as careful as I could. Then, as I went around a bend, a deer hopped past my bumper and into a burned field. I stopped the car, put my long lens on my camera, got out and took its picture.

Then I heard it. The cracking.

I looked up. A tree was rolling down the hill in the direction of my car. I watched it – shocked and helpless. Then, as if someone was watching over me, it stopped, suspended halfway down the hill. I took it as a sign to get out of there.

My next encounter with a murderous tree was my final day out in the field – Saturday.

I had decided to head up Dry Creek Road, where a hot spot was burning, to talk to some firefighters. I found some crews out of Arizona who were pretty welcoming and easy to talk to. The fire was burning up the hillside by this house, but it seemed well-controlled, so the fire chief escorted me up the hill to look at potentially fire weakened trees.

He pointed out a Ponderosa pine that had been drilled by a woodpecker. The holes allowed smoke to get into the tree, heating it up from the inside, he said. If that tree goes down, it could cause some serious damage. In fact, he added, falling trees are responsible for most firefighter deaths during wildfires.

In front of us on the right, just off the path, a white-barked tree burned at its base. There were actually three smaller-looking trees growing out of its base, one of which arched high over our path about two feet in front of us.

The fire chief asked if I was ready to go back down the hill.

I looked at the tree then back at him suspiciously. “Is that tree going to fall on us?” I asked.

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He said “No.”

Seconds after we started to head down the hill, though, I heard another firefighter scream something from the top of the hill. Then I heard what sounded like a crack. Immediately I started running – my hands over my head. I didn’t know where it was coming from or what direction it might be falling, so I started to head toward another tree, thinking that if I grab its backside and hug it that maybe it would break the fall of the tree coming down and save me from the impact.

Instead, I heard the fire chief, who must have sensed I was going to stop, yell “RUN!”

I continued scurrying down the hill, slipping slightly on some dried leaves, which gave me an extra boost, and jumped onto the back porch of the home threatened by fire. When I turned around, the fire chief was next to me, similarly out of breath, and I saw that the tree had landed right where we had been walking.

“Thanks for listening,” the chief said.

“Thanks for telling me to run,” I replied, high-fiving him with both hands.

It was exhilarating and, in a way, empowering – I had fled from death. I, someone who is pretty inactive and not sporty at all, moved my feet fast enough to get out of the way. I even jumped, damn it. I was proud of myself.

Later, though, it hit me how narrowly I had escaped – how close I had come to being crushed. Is this something I should even tell my mom, I wondered.

So, after a week of covering wildfires, going into dangerous areas and possibly walking on not only the ashes of homes, but of bodies too, I’m OK, I guess.

Like everyone has been saying, for most of us here in Napa County, it could have been worse.

Maria Sestito is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. Jersey Girl runs every other Sunday. Follow her on Twitter at @RiaSestito or email her at msestito@napanews.com.

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Public Safety Reporter

Maria Sestito is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She covers breaking news as well as crime and courts. Maria came to the Napa Valley Register in 2015 after working at as a reporter and photographer at The Daily News in Jacksonville, NC.