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Napa grand jury weighs in on evacuation route closure

From the Napa News Now: Check out the stories Napa County residents are talking about this week series
Old Howell Mountain Road

Pavement along this section of Old Howell Mountain Road was damaged by a landslide in 2017 storms. Some Angwin residents want the now-closed road repaired, so it can be an evacuation route during wildfires.

Some Angwin residents see a century-old, damaged, now-closed mountain road as possible salvation if they must flee from wildfire, if only the county would repair and reopen it.

Meanwhile, some county officials view the road not as a valuable evacuation route amid fire, but potential death trap.

Napa County has declined to repair and reopen Old Howell Mountain Road. The county grand jury recently agreed with this decision, but also criticized the county for the way it has handled the issue.

“Fire on the Mountain” is the main title of the new grand jury report.

The town of Angwin in the mountains northeast of St. Helena escaped the 2017 and 2020 mega-fires that burned much of the county. But it had close calls.

“Our lives in Angwin have been radically altered by threat of wildfires in the past several years,” Angwin resident Ken Stanton told the Napa Valley Register by email. “We do not feel safe here anymore.”

He tried to sell his house, but failed to find price-comparable homes within a hundred-square-mile radius. His family now takes an extended vacation for most of September and October, the height of fire season.

Stanton said he did an informal survey on Next Door Angwin and found 95% of respondents want the 3-mile-long Old Howell Mountain Road to be reopened.

Old Howell Mountain Road was built about 130 years ago, the grand jury report said. It is narrow, winding, steep and prone to wash out. Angwin residents view it not as a major thoroughfare, but an alternate emergency exit route.

A severe 2017 storm triggered a landslide that washed out a section of Old Howell Mountain Road. The county closed the road and never reopened it, prompting many Angwin residents to object.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 8, 2020 took up the issue. Supervisors had before them a county report that said Old Howell Mountain Road is not a viable escape route in a fast-moving wildfire.

“The mid-slope location of the road, the heavily wooded area below it, and its narrow, winding nature make it a virtual ‘death trap’ in the event of a natural disaster,” local public safety officials concluded in the report.

At least one resident found a way onto the road during the 2020 Glass fire and then drove off it, the county report said. That required diverting firefighting efforts to rescue the person.

Repairing Old Howell Mountain Road would cost $2 to $3 million. The county would have to divert money from other, planned road repairs, county officials said.

The Board of Supervisors declined to spend the money on the project, with only Supervisor Diane Dillon — whose district includes Angwin — arguing otherwise.

The grand jury acknowledged that, while it agrees with the county’s decision, many Angwin residents disagree.

That includes Stanton. Years ago, a fire closed Deer Park Road at the U-turn. Hundreds of drivers went down Old Howell Mountain Road and he was among them, he told the Napa Valley Register.

“To have only one viable escape exit to the west of Angwin is poor and risky planning,” Stanton said. “It is gambling with people’s lives. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — if a disaster like Paradise happens here, the county could be liable for a massive class action lawsuit.”

At the very least, he said, the road should be maintained for foot and bicycle traffic and emergency vehicles. He has walked and rode a bicycle on the road and believes the road with minimal clearing can handle one-way traffic.

The grand jury report said many Angwin residents interviewed stated they do not recall receiving notice prior to the Board of Supervisors’ Dec. 8, 2020 decision. The county should have done more to alert the community.

“Had this happened, years of concern and confusion could have been avoided,” the grand jury report said.

Napa County by September should hold a forum with Angwin residents to explain the feasibility and potential cost of repairing Old Howell Mountain Road. Residents should have the chance to express opinions and have questions answered, the grand jury said.

The Napa Valley Register on Friday asked the county for a response.

"The county has received the grand jury’s report. We look forward to providing an official response, which will be presented to the Board of Supervisors and shared with the public after staff have completed a thorough review within the 90-day statuary window," county spokesperson Leah Greenbaum said.

Napa County has provided responses to grand jury reports for many years in this fashion, she added.

The grand jury also invited the Angwin Volunteer Fire Department chief and Angwin Community Council president to respond to its various findings and recommendations.

You can reach Barry Eberling at 707-256-2253 or beberling@napanews.com

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

Related to this story

St. Helena is launching a robust and multifaceted reaction to fire season, fueled by grants and widespread awareness that the Glass Fire of 2020 could be a harbinger of worse things to come.

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