If, once upon a time, you were driving by the western shore of Lake Berryessa, there’s a good chance you would have passed it: 50 mobile homes, parked like dominos, sitting solidly within the triangular confines of Spanish Flat Mobile Villa.
Ask owner Rob Wolf, and he would tell you the Villa did not fit the mental image “trailer park” might conjure up: the homes were well tended to. A number of residents, renters and owners alike, had lived in the park for the better part of three decades. For many, it was a dignified place to call home – the difference, for some, between sleeping under a roof and in a car.
And in mid-August, on the second day Hennessey Fires, it was lost.
All but three of the park’s mobile homes were incinerated by flames on Aug. 18. There was almost no warning, according to Daniel Davenport, a five-year resident of the Villa who began working as an assistant manager for Wolf a little over a year ago.
“We’d been evacuated before, and been OK – so I think everyone was complacent about it,” Davenport said of park residents. Even so, fire traveled almost unimaginably quickly toward the park that afternoon, he said, and Cal Fire told the residents they needed to leave immediately as flames were suddenly visible from the property.
Davenport escaped with his two dogs and the clothes on his back – there wasn’t time to grab anything else, he said. As his home burned to the ground, he drove through puddles of what looked to him like pink slime – fire retardant – to a friend’s home in Middletown.
In the morning, Davenport sought out the Red Cross and asked to check into a shelter. The organization offered him vouchers for a motel in Napa, where he ultimately stayed for a few nights; then Wolf paid out of his own pocket for Davenport and the other park manager to stay in a hotel for a stretch. After that, Napa County got in touch, Davenport says, and for the last week he’s been staying at a Motel 6 in town with his two dogs.
“I’m not sure how long this is going to last, but at least it’s a place to stay,” Davenport said on Wednesday. “I just don’t have another place to be.”
Davenport did not have renter’s insurance; there is no light at the end of the tunnel that will make him whole. That’s the situation that most of the park’s renters are finding themselves in, Wolf said, explaining that many of the residents live on tight budgets.
“I send out letters every year asking them to consider insurance, but they could do something else with the $30-$40 a month,” Wolf said. “You can blame them for it, but a lot of them have a choice to make: do we eat, or do we buy the insurance?”
Almost every cent of Villa resident Beverly Stout’s Social Security check each month went toward paying her $850 rent. Stout receives a small pension, and was making ends meet – but also did not have insurance. On her way out of the path of the flames, she grabbed a handful of pictures and a basket of dirty laundry that was sitting on her porch. Everything else burned.
On Friday morning, Stout was in the process of leaving the short-term rental in Sonoma County where her daughter’s family had been staying since the fires. (Her daughter had also lost a home in Berryessa Highlands, though, fortunately, she and her husband did have fire insurance, Stout explained.) So on Friday afternoon, Stout was still waiting for a call from the county to tell her where she might go next. Her son-in-law was making attempts to get the family a motel room in the meantime.
“It’s been very stressful, not knowing where you’re going to be from one minute to the next,” Stout said. “My daughter’s family is trying to find a place to rent, but (properties) are almost nonexistent. And because I live on Social Security, I’m having a hard time finding a place that would fit my budget.”
This is not the first time that flames have destroyed homes in Napa County; more than 600 were destroyed during the wildfires in 2017. But a significant portion of those were secondary homes, not primary residences, according to county officials. And most of those impacted in 2017, as homeowners, did have insurance to make them whole, or otherwise had the resources to pay for their own short-term lodging.
Napa County is aware of as many as 20 individuals who have found themselves rendered essentially homeless by the fires, according to Lynn Perez, care and shelter director for the county’s Emergency Operations Center. The majority – about 75%—are former residents of the Villa.
“Of course we don’t want to put anyone out in the cold, but we also have limited time. We’re really trying to get them connected to the housing agencies so they can work on their long term plans,” Perez said, adding that the county is in “constant contact” with evacuees. The county had been able to secure additional state funding for week-long extensions for evacuees in hotel rooms; the date by which they’d have to vacate their rooms would vary depending on when they’d checked in.
Finding housing for permanently displaced evacuees, especially those without insurance, is a complex process – there is no single agency, and no one branch of government at the local, state or federal level that is definitively responsible for guiding fire survivors through that process.
“There’s no silver bullet,” Jeffrey Baumgartner, executive director of the Red Cross’s North Bay Chapter, said of finding evacuees a place to stay long term. The Red Cross will support survivors “so long as there is a need,” according to Baumgartner. He said he did not “have visibility” on the deadline by which evacuees would have to vacate their hotel rooms. That temporary lodging has been a collaborative effort between various levels of government and non-profit organizations, he said.
Deputy County Executive Officer Molly Rattigan said a rental assistance program run by FEMA could assist survivors with long-term housing placement, adding it was “critical” that displaced survivors apply for the aid.
The county is directing inquiries through its three Local Assistance Centers; one in Lake Berryessa, one in Capell Valley, and one in South Napa. (For more information, go to readynapacounty.org/27/Local-Assistance-Center).
“Everybody is different,” Perez, the care and shelter director, said. “Some folks can go to stay with friends or make other plans to get back to their normal lives. The ones that can’t, we’re referring to the housing and homelessness division to help with rehousing.”
Davenport as of Friday said he’d been told he could stay at Motel 6 until Sept. 7. The uncertainty had been making him anxious, he said, wondering aloud if the county would permit him to “tent camp” at Napa Valley Expo.
Stout’s mind, too, went to temporary solutions: during evacuations prompted by the last fire in 2017, she’d lived “out of her car” for a few days.
“I’m hopeful that won’t be necessary this time,” she added.
A fundraiser for the displaced residents had been set up by Judy Najera, a former property manager who had worked under owner Wolf until January. As of Friday, it had raised $1,005, despite having been active for two weeks, she said. She’d set the goal at $50,000 – lofty, she knew, but hypothetically enough to give each resident $1,000 worth of “starting over” money.
“These are not people living the high life – they were meeting their basic needs,” Najera said, explaining why the majority of residents were uninsured. “So what they lost – they really lost.”
Davenport, who described himself “as not completely broke” but noted that he was essentially living paycheck to paycheck, said he was thankful he’d been able to buy himself some new clothing and a couple of tanks of gas with the gift cards he’d received from the county.
Those kinds of donations can really make an impact, Stout said, adding she knew additional donations of any kind – clothes, food and so on – would be deeply appreciated by all displaced survivors, including residents of the Villa.
“It’s just so devastating. I don’t think it’s really sunk in for a lot of us,” she said. “I’m not sleeping well at night, that’s for sure.”
Editor's Note: a previous version of this article misstated the location of one of the county's local assistance centers. It is in South Napa.
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You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.