Weary fire crews on Tuesday tried to finish securing homes and people from further harm and begin establishing control lines around three Napa County wildfires.
The morning began with zero containment for the 25,000-acre Atlas Fire and 1,000-acre Partrick Fire near the city of Napa and 27,000-acre Tubbs Fire west of Calistoga. County officials said the focus remained on rescue operations.
Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann discussed the Atlas Fire, which had destroyed more than 125 homes. He described a Monday night that saw hills east of the city of Napa illuminated by flames that turned the smoke above a luminous orange.
“We are bouncing all over trying to still save homes, as this fire is switching on us,” Biermann said. “I know everyone saw the hills were glowing last night, as this fire was running back in different directions.”
Fire crews on Tuesday morning were getting ready to start their third consecutive shift because of limited resources, he said. Meanwhile, law enforcement was stretched thin trying to enforce road blocks.
“It’s just very challenging with so many large fires going in our immediate area,” Biermann said.
Still, Biermann could see at least a glimmer of sun amid the smoky shroud covering the Napa Valley. Hopefully, enough of the fire is out in some areas to eliminate the safety and structure issues and allow crews to start work on containment, he said.
The Atlas Fire had 458 people fighting it. Equipment included seven helicopters, eight air tankers, 50 fire engines and four bulldozers, according to Cal Fire.
“We would like more,” Biermann said. “It’s a good start. We want more engines, more equipment so we can start relieving some of those folks on the line and get them rested … we will start to do that.”
The Tubbs Fire burned into Sonoma County and Santa Rosa, where it has destroyed 550 homes and 21 commercial structures, according to Cal Fire. Battling it as of Tuesday were 647 firefighters. Equipment included 84 fire engines, seven helicopters and 13 bulldozers.
Little information was available from either Biermann or Cal Fire on the Partrick Fire. The number of firefighters battling it is listed at 458, but that’s because it is being approached in tandem with the Atlas Fire.
Because Cal Fire’s resources are strained, E. Ponce & Sons volunteered three bulldozer operators Sunday-Monday to cut some four miles of fire breaks in the grassy hillside bordering Napa’s Browns Valley neighborhood.
The bulldozer operators worked 19 hours cutting fire breaks, with Cal Fire officials checking in only periodically and assisting late Monday afternoon by setting backfires, said owner Eli Ponce, whose equipment yard had been threatened by the Partrick Fire.
“I just volunteered,” said Ponce. “I could see the fire.”
Bullzozer operator Dan Wynn said he is proud of himself and his fellow operators.
“We got to save a whole neighborhood in Browns Valley,” he said. “We were running on 100 percent pure adrenaline.”
Maj. Gen. David Baldwin of the California National Guard said 240 soldiers and airmen are supporting firefighting efforts in Napa and Sonoma counties. The National Guard is providing aviation and evacuation support, he said during a press conference streamed on the Internet.
Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott was asked during a Sacramento press conference whether the fires might have been caused by arson, given all three began in a single night.
Pimlott said 95 percent of fires in the state are started in some way by humans, though not necessarily by arson. He noted the three fires began amid dry fuels on a night with winds up to 50 mph.
“Every fire that starts (in those conditions) has significant potential to grow into a large fire very quickly,” he said.
Cal Fire investigates the cause of all fires, but it’s too early to have information on the origins of the Napa County fires, Pimlott said.
County Supervisor Ryan Gregory said at the Napa County press conference he understands that evacuees want to check on their homes. But it’s important they stay out of the evacuation areas for their own safety, he said.
Biermann said the evacuation areas have a lot of devastation. Before people can return, fire crews have to secure utilities and gas lines and make certain trees won’t fall on someone.
“I ask that people please be patient as we work on these areas,” he said. “The fires are still out there. They are still actively growing.”
Some people who can’t return to their properties might be tempted use drones to take a look, Biermann said. He asked people to refrain from drone use in fire areas.
“If you fly, we cannot fly our aircraft,” Biermann said. “And we have aircraft on all of our fires, trying to contain these incidents. So please make sure those drones don’t go up.”
Fire and emergency officials addressed dozens of evacuees during a 4 p.m. briefing in the Napa Valley College gymnasium, where about 110 people have been staying.
Cal Fire spokesman David Shrew said he knew people want to go see whether their homes had survived. A big column of smoke visible in the general direction of Skyline Wilderness Park east of the college illustrates why this would be unsafe, he said.
There are still lots of flareups in the fire areas, even though the main front is heading to the Green Valley area and other parts of Solano County, Shrew said.
An evacuee asked California Highway Patrol Capt. Chris Childs how the Monticello Park area had fared in the fire.
“Spotty,” Childs said. “There is fire in some areas and not in others.”
Ramos told evacuees of the county’s various avenues of giving them information, from Twitter to radio reports.
“It’s the only gift I can give you right now,” she said.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide partial federal disaster assistance for the fires. It will provide money for emergency work, repair of public facilities and debris removal.
The Trump administration has yet to rule on providing aid to individuals who have lost homes and suffered other property damage in the fires. Thompson said securing these funds will be the next important step for recovery and rebuilding.
Thompson said he took photographs of the fire areas in Sonoma County during a flight over the area with sheriff’s officials.
“All of those have been submitted to both FEMA and the White House so they understand exactly how serious and devastating this fire is for the people of the area,” Thompson said. “We expect them to be moving quickly. I spoke with the FEMA director last night.”
Napa County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Belia Ramos said some people are still trying to find out if loved ones are safe, given the spotty cellphone coverage in the wake of the fires. She suggested they go to www.safeand well.org as a way to link with evacuees who have registered at shelters.
Ramos said Comcast has opened a public Wi-Fi service in the 95401, 95403, 95404 95405, 94558, 94559 and 94903 area codes. These complimentary sessions will be open through Friday, Oct. 13.