It was the persistent cellphone calls from a friend that first clued Norma Quintana to the fact that something was wrong.
Quintana, who lives on Westgate Drive in the Silverado area, recalled how on Sunday night, Oct. 8, she began to get multiple calls from friend Kathy Wong. After the third call, Quintana finally answered only to hear some very startling news.
“There’s a fire behind your house,” Quintana heard Wong tell her.
Quintana was confused, she said. “I don’t see a fire,” she said, as she looked outside her home.
Besides, the family’s house has a fire road behind it and a fire hydrant in front of it, she thought.
“We’re safe,” Quintana said she believed. Surely the fire road and hydrant would protect them, if needed.
On that Sunday night, the house on Westgate Drive had five people inside it: Quintana, her husband, Napa cardiologist Sergio Manubens, their 13-year-old daughter Frida, their 27-year old son Milos, and Manubens’ elderly mother from Florida.
Quintana, a professional photographer, and her husband went outside to see what was going on.
“It was so windy,” she recalled. “We had to hold onto each other.”
After walking on the fire road towards an area called the Silverado Highlands, the couple could now see a glow in the hills. There was the fire.
“I called 911,” she said. “It was busy.”
Returning home, they began collecting flashlights, thinking the house might lose power. The idea they’d have to evacuate was not on her mind, she said. At that time, “We’re assuming we’re going to be OK.”
Then Quintana heard loudspeakers outside their home.
“Evacuate immediately,” blared the warning.
First responders then came to their door and knocked, really hard, she said. It was time to leave, they were informed.
The family quickly packed cellphones and laptops. Even then, Quintana held out hope the fire would stay away. As they drove to her husband’s medical office on Villa Lane, “I never thought we were in immediate danger; that we wouldn’t be coming home to our home.”
As they left, the streets were filled with smoke.
“This is big,” Quintana realized.
By the next morning, they would find out just how big.
A neighbor texted Manubens.“He said ‘Sergio, ‘It’s not good news.’”
“That’s when it hit us,” said Quintana.
The family’s home of 28 years was destroyed by the fire, along with Quintana’s collection of artwork, her photographs and her photography studio, including hundreds of vintage cameras.
One week later, the family is now living in a friend’s home in Browns Valley. All their worldly possessions could fit in the back seat of a car, she said.
Quintana has already returned to the site of their Silverado home.
“There is nothing you can recognize,” she said, but “it was weirdly beautiful.”
Ultimately, “the loss is really about memories, it’s not about things,” she said.
As part of her grieving process, she’s compelled to search where her former home stood just over one week ago.
“Someone is bringing a sifter today” to go through what the fire left behind, she said on Tuesday. “You sift like you are looking for gold in the ashes.”
It’s something she said she has to do. “If I don’t do that, I don’t have closure.”
As part of that closure, she’s also expressing her feelings through her art.
“As an artist, when I despair, I don’t break down, I break through,” she said.
“I start creating,” she said. “I’ve been doing this little series called “Forage from Fire,” using the camera on her iPhone.
A fire-scarred statuette of a clown, a watch, a silver cross, a camera body. Each object she finds is placed on a glove and photographed.
The family also has other matters to deal with. They did have fire insurance, Quintana said. She’s already learned much about the claims process, but the thought of paperwork, inspections, meetings and reports doesn’t intimidate her.
“I adopted three children internationally from two different countries,” she said. “If I can do that, I can do anything.”
She was able to save only one camera — a Hasselblad — and one lens.
Fortunately many of Quintana’s negatives are stored with a printer in Portland.
Quintana, who has published one book of her photographs called “Circus: A Traveling Life,” was already working on a second book of photographs called “Forget Me Not.”
From this fire, she’s already decided to include photos of people who have lost their homes in her new book, she said.
“It’s weird,” she said. “I wake up and in my head I walk through the halls of my home. I see what’s on the walls; I go in the backyard and see that table that has hosted many events. I have coffee, I see my studio, my inspiration wall….,” but the reality is, “That’s all not there.”
The family hasn’t decided if they will rebuild a home on the same site or not.
Either way, “We’re not moving. We’re staying,” in Napa.
“People say, ‘I can’t imagine,’ and I say they are right. They can’t imagine. There are no words.”
The home is gone, “but more importantly, the security of a home.”
Quintana said her 13-year-old daughter summed it up.
“She said, ‘Mommy, we are now nomads.’”
“It was a really powerful explanation,” said Quintana.
“We just have each other and a few things, and that’s it.”