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East Napa County rural residents bear brunt of wildfires
Fighting Back

East Napa County rural residents bear brunt of wildfires

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Eastern Napa County rural residents scrambled to save their property and lives as wildfires ravaged this usually peaceful, off-the-beaten-track area.

The lightning-spawned fires seemed far away from many of these rural homes even on Tuesday morning. That quickly changed as flames swept past Lake Berryessa and all the way to Mount Vaca and Vacaville in neighboring Solano County.

Standing in their path Tuesday night was Peter Kilkus’ home. Come Wednesday morning, the house was still there.

Kilkus described the house as an “island in the middle of everything burned.”

He evacuated to a Davis hotel on Tuesday evening as the fire approached. His son, Evan Kilkus, remained to keep the house safe. Aiding in the effort was a heavy-duty sprinkler system Evan Kilkus designed that sprays the house, with water coming from two 5,000-gallon water tanks.

“It’s like a water park,” Peter Kilkus said Wednesday morning.

The fire appeared to bypass nearby Berryessa Highlands on Tuesday night, said Peter Kilkus, who runs the Lake Berryessa News. Berryessa Highlands has about 350 homes on hills overlooking Lake Berryessa.

County Fire Chief Geoff Belyea said later Wednesday that Berryessa Highlands was still of concern.

But part of Spanish Flat along the lake was destroyed, including a mobile home park, Kilkus said. He knows people who left Spanish Flat by boat and watched from Lake Berryessa as much of that area went up in flames.

“What could happen worse?” Peter Kilkus said. “COVID, 100-degree weather, a unique fire that never happened before caused by lightning.”

The west shore of the lake is a disaster area, he said.

Jim Wilson lives on a ranch along Monticello Road between the city of Napa and Lake Berryessa. He and his wife spent the night in their car at the ranch, keeping an eye on their property, yet also ready to flee.

“We knew we weren’t getting any fire service in the area,” Wilson said Wednesday morning. “There was no one to fight the fire.”

Meanwhile, the cows were calving.

The ranch was threatened by the October 2017 Atlas Fire, but Wilson said this time seems worse. During that incident, a fire unit from Bakersfield came to the ranch. A tractor cut a fire break.

“We don’t have anything like that now,” Wilson said. “No help.”

They didn’t see flames on the ranch Tuesday. But they drove a couple of miles to Moskowite Corner and saw the fire on the move. The entire sky was red. A repeat trip on Wednesday morning showed a sky of smoke and white ash.

He was surprised by the speed at which everything happened.

“Yesterday, the fire was still probably about five miles from us at mid-day,” Wilson said. “But by later that evening, the fire was within a couple of miles of our ranch. It surprised us because the wind speed wasn’t that great.”

He had plans on Wednesday morning that could change, depending on the situation.

“We’re going to stay at the ranch,” he said. “Of course, there’s no power. We have water. We have some food. Hopefully, things will stabilize and we’ll get some power back.”

Lisa Hirayama and her husband, Larry Carr, live at Circle Oaks, a community of 180 homes between the city of Napa and Lake Berryessa. She was in Fairfield Tuesday and received a call from Carr to come home.

“Coming up Wooden Valley, I saw that huge, thunderhead-type of smoke,” she said. “I knew that thunderhead did not look good.”

Then came the evacuation order over Nixle. Suddenly, it seemed like the 2017 Atlas fire all over again.

“Definitely getting a flashback,” she said.

Carr is a retired professional firefighter. He stayed at Circle Oaks as the 2017 Atlas fire approached, putting out hot spots and working with strike teams unfamiliar with the area to save the community from a fire that reached its outskirts.

He is staying at the rural outpost again this time, along with two other firefighters who live there. They are the line of defense for Circle Oaks.

Hirayama and her son evacuated to a Vacaville motel. As it turned out, the fire headed that direction. The wildfire alert system camera on the top of Mount Vaca on Wednesday morning transmitted internet images that showed nothing except orange flames.

Emergency officials ordered evacuations in north Vacaville. Hirayama’s motel was outside the evacuation area, but she heard from a friend in Vacaville whose home was a quarter-mile from the fire.

Meanwhile, her mind was also on Circle Oaks.

“We’re still on pins and needles, because the fire (on Atlas Peak) is behind us and anything could happen today,” she said Wednesday morning.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday morning heard an update on the Lightning Complex fires. At that time, the big question was whether the northeast county community of Berryessa Estates might have to evacuate.

By evening, the picture had changed dramatically and for the worse. The county issued evacuation orders for much of the eastern county. Fires in the more remote parts of the rural east county were suddenly threatening the more populated areas.

Hirayama said Circle Oaks residents begin worrying as soon as they hear about a fire, even if it’s some distance away. She’s keeping her car packed and ready to go during fire season.

Watch now: Hennessey fire as seen from Nichelini Family Winery

You can reach Barry Eberling at 256-2253 or beberling@napanews.com.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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