ANGWIN — The vistas were commanding, the backdrops of thickly wooded hill ridges dramatic. But the Angwin residents who inched their SUVs and pickup trucks down a narrow, gravelly road on Sunday morning were not taking this trip for the mountain views.
With a Cal Fire battalion chief leading the way, drivers made the two-mile trek eastward from the Upvalley hamlet through Las Posadas State Forest, around hilly switchbacks and through a vineyard – a rarely traveled back-door route that fire safety officers hope can become an escape hatch the next time wildfires menace the North Bay.
Normally off limits to the public, the route known to local firefighters as the “back gate road” is now listed by Cal Fire as an evacuation route from Angwin, an unincorporated community of some 3,400 people. An eight-page brochure published by Cal Fire and the Napa County Sheriff’s Office includes the route as an alternative to Old Howell Mountain Road, a section of which has been closed since a washout during a January 2017 storm.
On Sunday morning, more than 50 drivers in three convoys experimented with the emergency road. Despite its tight turns and sometimes sharp drop-offs, some residents were grateful to learn of another way out of Angwin, part of which was briefly evacuated during the 2015 Valley Fire in Lake County.
“We’ve been evacuated a couple times and it’s scary,” DJ Nielsen said as she and her husband Kent, Angwin residents for 15 years, idled in their SUV awaiting the start of the first caravan at 9 a.m. “If everyone in Angwin had to get out the main road, that would be very, very tough. It’s good to know it before we need it.”
Cal Fire officials in Napa County organized the guided drives to familiarize those living or vacationing in Angwin with the evacuation route under relaxed practice conditions, according to Battalion Chief Matt MacDonald. The roadway provides an eastbound path toward Chiles Pope Valley Road, where evacuees can turn north toward Middletown in Lake County or head south toward Highway 128, which connects with the Silverado Trail and continues to the city of Napa.
Exit routes, and their absence, have become a central story of devastating firestorms that have struck Northern California in recent years. Six Napa County residents who perished in the 2017 Atlas Fire lived in hilly areas of the eastern valley, and roads leading out of the Butte County city of Paradise jammed as townsfolk hurriedly fled last November’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people.
Angwin is one of four Napa Valley communities, along with Silverado, Berryessa Estates and Berryessa Highlands, where more than 6,000 people live in areas Cal Fire classifies as having a “very high” fire hazard.
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As MacDonald and the first convoy set off from a Cal Fire station on Las Posadas Road, it soon became obvious the one-lane evacuation route was no speedway even in the ideal conditions of a calm and sunny weekend morning. A gravel surface gave way to packed dirt, and the right shoulder gradually fell away into steep ravines and serpentine turns that demanded drivers’ full attention even at a 10 mph crawl.
Regardless of which road Angwin residents take to get ahead of a major fire, “we highly recommend people getting out early,” MacDonald said while guiding his pickup past the pines, manzanitas and brush that could become fuel for an inferno. Nonetheless, he added, “in favorable conditions, I’m confident passenger vehicles can make it out here.” (Cal Fire does not recommend the Las Posadas emergency road for RVs, trailers or longer vehicles.)
Finally, asphalt appeared under the wheels as the roadway emerged from the forest into Durham Ranch. A straighter, flatter path lined with white picket fences and grapevines signaled the approach of safety, which appeared as the route intersected with two-lane Chiles Pope Valley Road, where MacDonald greeted motorists as they drove off for home.
Useful as another escape route may be, one member of the convoy still held out hope that Napa County eventually will also fix the existing one.
“This is a good start, but we (also) need (Old) Howell Mountain; it’s the main route in and the main route out,” said Donna Morgan. “We need to know how many cars can get on that road.” (The county has not disclosed plans for repairing the washout, a task estimated to require at least $2 million.)
Though the 2017 North Bay fires had not officially forced Mary Lavine and her husband Sandy to quit Angwin, dense smoke blowing in from Mount St. Helena led the couple to load belongings in their two vehicles and eventually spend a night in Fairfield farther away from the blaze. Thus, Sunday morning seemed a perfect time to practice for the next crisis, whenever it might strike.
“The more alternatives, the better,” said Mary Lavine as the couple joined the queue for the second convoy over the Las Posadas road. “We live at the top of a mountain and a fire can come up at us from any direction. We wanted to do this for the muscle memory.”