Firefighters have come to Napa County from far and wide to battle three conflagrations that have threatened the wine country for a week. On Sunday, a group of local chefs, together with Justin-Siena High School, showed their thanks in the best way they knew: with food and messages of gratitude.
The Catholic school on Maher Street played host to Feed the Firsts, a banquet put together on barely three days’ notice as a treat to fire and law enforcement personnel arrayed against the Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs fires in the North Bay.
In place of 30-hour shifts cutting firebreaks and saving houses from flames, there was a buffet line of tri-tip beef, burgers, chicken and salad. While first responders in their uniforms chowed down, volunteers came by with greeting cards hand-drawn by local children, thanking them for their work protecting their hometowns.
Dom Moreci, a co-organizer of the banquet, said Napa resident Gabe Meyers and other planners began discussing the idea at midweek before getting use of a Justin-Siena gym for five hours on Sunday. After gaining the donated time of various chefs and about $15,000 in donations, planners started preparing food on Saturday ahead of the banquet, at which guests were encouraged to take boxed meals – packed by Justin-Siena students – back to their comrades still on duty in fire zones or at roadblocks.
Kitchen volunteers planned on serving between 400 and 800 meals for safety personnel at the event and in the field, said Greg Cole, founding chef-owner of Cole’s Chop House in downtown Napa.
“Everybody wants to do something to help,” he said. “I live in Old Town, never lost power, and I felt kind of guilty, wondering what I could do. This is great.”
The thankfulness for Feed the Firsts guests ran even deeper for others in the kitchen like George Velazquez of The Charter Oak in St. Helena, who fled at 2 a.m. Monday with his dogs and cat as the Atlas Fire neared his Montecito home.
“They finally let me in on Friday after five days,” said Velazquez, who that same day was asked to pitch in at the first responders’ banquet. “A lot of this has to do with giving back to the people who are helping us. I would help for more days if I could.”
At a banquet table, a boy holding a hand-drawn card approached four firemen from Gresham, Oregon as they tucked into their lunches, and handed the card to Lt. Michael Snodgrass, who with his comrades had been assigned to keeping the Nuns Fire away from the Veterans Home in Yountville and various houses west of Highway 29.
“This is incredible, a huge outpouring from the community,” said Snodgrass, who began his firefighting career 25 years ago with Cal Fire in Riverside County. “We’re no heroes – we happened to be the guys fighting the fires. To get a hero’s welcome makes us all blush.”
That hero’s welcome had included not only the feast they were enjoying, but even what had come before – a friendly gauntlet of Justin-Siena teenagers greeting them curbside at Solano and Trower avenues, pointing the way to campus with signs and sandwich boards of encouragement.
The North Bay wildfires also had struck at some of Snodgrass’s aunts and uncles, who took flight from Santa Rosa and did not yet know whether their homes had survived a blaze that devastated whole neighborhoods and killed at least 40 people.
“It’s one thing for people to lose their homes,” he said, “but it’s staggering for us to that some people never even had an opportunity to escape.”
Beside his plate was the greeting card the boy had left him. Next to a smiling stick figure and a scribble of red were the words: “THANK YOU!”
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