Dan and Naoko Mufson marked the third anniversary of the Atlas Fire that destroyed their home by moving into their rebuilt home, putting them among only 11% of October 2017 fire victims to reach that milestone.
They opted for a new look rather than cloning their old house on Atlas Peak Road. Too many ghosts would be associated with trying to replicate their pre-fire abode.
“My wife pointed out if we rebuilt the original house, we would have continually been aware of all the things we had on the walls, all the collectables that are gone and can never be replaced,” Dan Mufson said.
The recent Hennessey and Glass fires, destructive as they were, can’t burn away the memories of October 2017. That’s when Napa County experienced what to that point might have been the biggest disaster in its history.
Napa County lost 655 homes in the Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs fires of three years ago. They ranged from mansions in the Silverado area to rustic homes on Mount Veeder. The quest to rebuild has yielded mixed results.
The county since then has received 304 rebuilding applications, issued 249 permits and seen 73 homes completed. It will take years to recover what was lost in a matter of days.
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“Rebuilding from the 2017 fire has been slowed down by a number of concerns,” county Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said.
He ticked them off – homeowners taking time to settle with insurance companies, increased construction demand because of state wildfires losses that nearly doubled construction costs, new state regulations for private roads, solar energy and fire sprinklers that added further costs and COVID-19 restrictions for construction crews.
Recovery is going slowly. Only 29 percent of homes destroyed in 2017 fires have received rebuild permits.
Some people rebuilt fairly quickly. The Walkers in Soda Canyon and Joe Betz in Silverado completed their new homes about a year after the fire.
The Mufsons faced different circumstances. Dan Mufson said he had never built a house before. Doing so didn’t immediately appear to be the best approach.
They tried selling their Atlas Peak Road lot, but that proved difficult with so many fire-hit parcels on the market. Then they found their insurance settlement wouldn’t pay for a suitable home elsewhere in Napa Valley amid rising prices.
They realized the only way to get back to a normal life was to rebuild, Dan Mufson said.
Their move-in day was Oct. 8, the three-year anniversary of the disaster. On the night of Oct. 8, 2017, they had fled their house after smelling smoke, looking outside and seeing Atlas Peak ablaze. Their escape route took them past their burning mailbox.
Pacific Gas & Electric will pay Napa County $34 million and the city of Napa $6.3 million for damage caused by the October 2017 wildfires.
Georgene and Ib Larsen lost their home of 23 years on Monticello Road to the Atlas Fire. They are waiting for settlement money from Pacific, Gas & Electric to rebuild. A Cal Fire investigation found a PG&E line sparked the blaze.
“Without knowing the amount of the settlement, we won’t know if we will be able to rebuild and when,” Georgene Larsen said.
Meanwhile, they’ve had problems with their insurance company, which told them it would no longer pay rental expenses for their temporary home and removed all rental furniture. They are desperately looking for an affordable, furnished rental, but so far have had no luck, she said.
“I wish I had better news,” Larsen said. “Unfortunately, after three years, we are still living this nightmare.”
On a more positive note, they are designing their hoped-for new home to sit on a much better location on the property, to really take advantage of Napa Valley views, she said.
Against this uneven recovery backdrop for the 2017 wildfires comes the one-two punch of the Hennessey and Glass fires of this year.
“Before we’ve had a chance to fully heal, the 2020 fires dealt a new and even bigger blow to our community, burning over 180,000 acres, destroying another 628 homes and damaging dozens of local businesses,” Morrison said.
Here’s the cumulative Napa County picture – wildfires over three years have burned about 250,000 acres, which represents half the county, though fire footprints overlap in places. They destroyed more than 1,200 homes and more than 350 commercial structures.
A rare dependent species, Hollyleaf Ceanothus seeds need fire to germinate, and the Atlas Fire on Mt. George in Napa in 2017 did just that.
Napa County government has taken such fire relief steps as cutting its rebuilding fees by 30%. It has waived more than $1.8 million in fees for fire-affected property owners, Morrison said.
Residents rose to the challenge of the October 2017 fires aftermath by pitching in their care, time and resources to help begin recovery, he said.
“We have the determination, resiliency and sympathy needed to prevail over this new tragedy,” Morrison. “Napa County is already hard at work in concert with local families and businesses to restore the future.”
Dan Mufson agreed there is a light at the end of the tunnel for those who have had homes burned in wildfires. But that doesn’t mean recovery will be easy.
“There’s light, but it’s a long tunnel,” he said. “It took us three years.”
Watch now: Firefighters race to save homes from wildfire
Photos: Rebuilding after the Atlas Fire
You can reach Barry Eberling at 256-2253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.