Lake Berryessa News documents Napa fires on Facebook Live

This flame retardant drop by a Boeing 747 air tanker was among the images, videos and news updates shared by Evan Kilkus, editor of the Lake Berryessa News, after the outbreak of wildfires across Napa and Sonoma counties on Oct. 8.

As friends and neighbors hightailed out of Lake Berryessa and away from the North Bay wildfires, Evan Kilkus stayed behind – to share images and news of the Napa County enclave and, later, to reassure residents they still had places to return home.

While newspapers and TV stations documented the unfolding disaster across Napa and Sonoma counties, the 34-year-old resident of Berryessa Highlands became a one-man breaking-news operation. Staying put despite an evacuation order, Kilkus, editor of the Lake Berryessa News, turned his Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone into a source of live pictures, videos and updates for residents to keep in touch with the lakeside communities they had been forced to leave behind.

For a week, the News’ Facebook page was a fount of images and reports from around Lake Berryessa, starting with dramatic nighttime footage of flames along a ridgeline and later documenting the closing-off – and eventual reopening – of roads and neighborhoods.

“I feel the Lake Berryessa News is there to complement all the other media out there,” he said of the publication, a monthly that began in the 1980s and was bought by his father Peter Kilkus in 2002. “Everyone does what they can do.”

Kilkus, a contract photographer and videographer, was in bed on the night of Oct. 8, when fires erupted on three sides of the county and were quickly fanned into infernos by powerful winds. Though he awoke around 11:30 that night to numerous text messages on his phone, “we were far enough away that we weren’t worried that night,” he recalled.

The fire and smoke intensified, however, and over the next two days more and more Berryessa households left their homes, including Kilkus’ retired father. By Tuesday morning Evan, a member of the Berryessa Highlands Community Fire Safe Council, sent texts and Nextdoor posts alerting Berryessa residents that a mandatory evacuation was imminent, with winds forecasted to shift direction toward their community.

After public safety agencies put out the call to leave the Berryessa Highlands that afternoon, he decided to stick around, initially to capture video of the approaching blaze from a ridge on his father’s property and share it in real time on Facebook Live.

“I was ready to evacuate; I’d already sent away my valuable with my dad when he left,” he recalled. “So I stuck around to see if the fire would crest the hills about a mile away. When I saw the wind shift it away from the neighborhood, that’s when I decided I would stay there for as long as it was safe.”

By Tuesday night, sharing what Kilkus was seeing had become a challenge, as power lines and most cellular towers went down. Repeated trips to his house allowed him to recharge his phone with generator power, and a single cell transmitter atop Atlas Peak provided a bar and a half of signal – just enough for his neighbors to see what was unfolding back home.

The fires ultimately killed more than 40 people (including six in Napa County) and wiped out entire subdivisions in Santa Rosa, and Kilkus decided only images could reassure viewers their own homes were not similarly ravaged. Facebook Live “was an easy and quick way to show the neighbors their homes were still there, because no words could do that,” he said.

“My goal was to make sure no embers jumped to start new fires,” said Kilkus, who watched the fire Tuesday night until 4 a.m. “I wasn’t fearful. I was alert. I was prepared.”

More videos followed later that week showing repeated airborne dumps of flame retardant – including a massive release from a Boeing 747 tanker – to keep the fires from spreading toward Berryessa Highlands and Pleasure Cove, along with posts that documented the increasing containment of the blazes by armies of fire crews drawn from all over the West Coast.

As the week progressed, Kilkus found himself becoming as much a caretaker as a newsman. When evacuees texted him about the cats, birds and fish they had left behind, he said, he began visiting their homes to feed their animals and watch over their homes, ultimately more than 20 of them.

“I used Facebook Messenger, Nextdoor and texts to send back pictures of their pets, just to make them smile,” he said.

Despite his marathon work sharing news from Lake Berryessa during the fires, Kilkus insisted he would have joined the evacuees himself had the danger been more acute. “If the wind had blown at my community,” he said, “I would have run and never looked back.”

So thankful were some Berryessa homeowners that they took up an online GoFundMe collection to pay Kilkus’ newscasting expenses. Rather than accept the money, he asked donors to steer their gifts, which have exceeded $6,000, toward county residents whose homes were destroyed in the fires.

“All I did was to pass along information to people and to feed their animals,” he said. “The firefighters got to save dozens if not hundreds of homes. So I’m just happy all these neighbors got to go home, and that I got the be the messenger to pass on the good news.”

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.