Wildfire history in Napa County

Wildfire history in Napa County


The history of wildfires in Napa County extends farther back than our human history. Long before the earliest native populations traveled down from the north and made the county their home, lightning-caused wildfire was part of the Napa landscape, burning through the forests and brush during the summer and fall. Once humans settled here and brought their fire knowledge with them, fire increased in frequency, as natives used it to open up lands for wildlife grazing, trails, and settlements.

In his book "Fire: A Brief History," author and fire historian Stephen Pyne describes these two phases of fire as "First Fire" and "Second Fire." From an ecological standpoint, First Fire represented the naturally occurring pattern of ignitions and fires. Lightning was the main source of ignition in the Napa landscape, where it found a ready fuel that was dry and disposed toward burning.

First Fire was present when humans arrived, bringing Second Fire. Aboriginal humans used fire as one of their most powerful tools to shape the landscape, drive game, and increase game quantity by controlling forage. They also used it to open shaded land for agriculture and to fertilize and remove old crops. These human efforts increased the spread and frequency of fire occurrences, expanding the effects of the natural or First Fire.

As civilization grew more complex and the internal combustion engine was developed, a "Third Fire" also arrived. As Mr. Pyne outlines, the more Third Fire developed, the less influence First and Second Fire seemed to have. Fire became less an open landscape process and more a confined and controlled event. Campfires and hearths were displaced by stoves. Work that had been done by range burning and agricultural fire was taken over by tractors and fertilizers. As people began to settle in larger numbers, fire became threatening: no one wanted to see natural resources like timber going up in flames rather than being used for buildings.

Napa fire history over the past 100 years includes major blazes that have taken their toll on our county and its people. Here's a list of some of the historic Napa County fires:

* 1913: Fire started in Sage Canyon and burned south to the Delta, 1 fatality

* 1923: Mt. St. John fire started in Rutherford, and burned over Mt. St. John and west into Boyes Springs in a few hours. Cause: burning out bees.

* 1930s: Fire started on Mt. St. Helena and burned along the Mayacamas range to the Delta.

* 1964: Hanley Fire, at 72,000 acres, burned from Mt. St. Helena to Santa Rosa. Other fires occurred in the county at the same time: Conn Fire, Nunn's Canyon fire, and the Mt. George fire. Causes: undetermined, 149 structures lost.

* 1977: Howell Mt. Fire, at 2,200 acres, burned Howell Mountain and threatened Angwin. Cause: vehicle fire.

* 1981: Atlas Peak Fire burned 20,000 acres in one afternoon, from Atlas Peak into Soda Canyon and the now Silverado Highlands. Cause: arson.

* 1982: Silverado Fire burned 2,000 acres on Mt. St. Helena. Cause: downed power lines started a structure fire in high winds.

* 1999: "16" Fire, at 38,000 acres, burned from Rumsey Canyon/Brooks in Yolo County to Lake Berryessa.

* 2000: Berryessa Fire, at 5,000 acres, burned the west side of Lake Berryessa. Cause: sparks from a boat trailer dragging a wheel with a flat tire.

* 2004: Rumsey Fire, at 28,000 acres, burned from Rumsey Canyon/Brooks in Yolo County to Lake Berryessa. The fire's footprint was parallel to the one from the "16" Fire five years earlier.

There were common factors at play in all these fires. Major fires tend to occur during strong northeast wind conditions. These periods of high wind and low humidity cause fires to spread rapidly, with extreme fire behavior that is very difficult to suppress. Most, if not all, of these historic fires were caused by human activity.

The best way to address this risk today, as we shape a fire strategy for Napa County, is for every homeowner in the wildland area to create defensible space around their structure and along their driveway. This will minimize the chance of loss and make it safer for firefighters to approach if they are needed. Once we have accomplished this, we can begin to discuss the environmental benefits of fire and how to manage our Napa landscape for the long term.

Kate Dargan is a 25-year veteran of the California Department of Forestry and is fire marshal for Napa County. She can be contacted at: kate.dargan@fire.ca.gov. Darren Drake is the fire marshal for the city of Napa and has over 25 years of fire service experience. Darren can be reached at: ddrake@cityofnapa.org. Kate and Darren are responsible for fire code enforcement and fire prevention education.

Special thanks to Battalion Chief Mark Barclay, CDF/Napa County Fire for his years as "fire historian" and his contributions to this week's column.

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