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The week that was

Napans slog through a disaster of historic dimensions

From the THE LATEST: Napa County Wildfire Updates series
Atlas Fire

A chimney was all that remained of an Atlas Peak Road home that was destroyed in the Atlas Fire.

A windy Sunday night ignited Napa County’s historic, hellish week of flames, evacuations, torched homes, six deaths, choking smoke and worry.

Yes, it has been only a week. To many residents, it probably seems like a month. The new norm is wearing surgical masks to combat the foul air and checking daily on the status of the Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns fires.

“We’re no strangers to natural disasters, having had numerous fires in the past and floods and earthquakes,” state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said. “But this one has significantly impacted more people than any of those, probably all put together.”

The Napa County native believes the disaster this past week is more than simply a historically large disaster by Napa County standards.

“I believe the combined fires in Napa and Sonoma counties will go down as one of the largest natural disasters in the state of California history—not just this year, the history of the state of California,” he said.

A still-unknown cause, possibly downed power poles, sparked three major fires on Sunday night. Winds gusting from 35 mph to 75 mph in some parts of the Bay Area fanned the flames in fuels that grew thick over a wet winter and dried over a hot summer.

Mike Pechner of Golden West Meteorology in Fairfield compared the winds to those that stoked the infamous, 1991 Oakland Hills fire. They packed a once-in-a-generation punch.

“This (wind) event was very rare in recent history,” Pechner said.

As a result, the world-famous Napa Valley floor found itself enclosed in a flaming noose that opened and closed depending on the winds. The Atlas Fire is in the east mountains, the Nuns Fire is in the west mountains and the Tubbs Fire is along Mount St. Helena at the valley’s end.

By Friday, the three fires had spread across a total of 127,000 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. That’s almost 200 square miles of mostly hills covered with brush, oaks, vineyards and other vegetation – and scattered with homes.

Sonoma County was hit the hardest. The Tubbs Fire, though it started near Calistoga, rampaged through Santa Rosa subdivisions. It destroyed more than 576 structures and killed least 15 people.

But Napa County has had plenty of woes from the three fires. Two elderly people died when flames swept through the Silverado area, while four others died at two residences on Atlas Peak Road. At least 200 structures have been destroyed in Napa County alone. Thousands of people evacuated – fire officials couldn’t say how many—including the entire city of Calistoga.

To be sure, California is infamous for large fires. The 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego burned 273,246 acres, destroyed 2,820 structures and killed 15 people. The 1991 Berkeley Hills fire burned only 1,600 acres, but destroyed 2,900 structures and killed 25 people. The 2015 Valley Fire in neighboring Lake County burned 76,067 acres, destroyed 1,955 structures and killed four people.

But Napa County, which prefers to be known for grapes and not wildfires, looks likely to make the state’s next statistical list for damaging and destructive fires.

This week’s disaster had some high-tech twists on past Napa County disasters.

As cellular service and electricity returned around midweek, 21st-century communication tools came to the forefront. Accounts of Napa County’s latest disaster unfolded not only in newspapers and on television and radio, but across social media in a way that outstripped even the 2014 South Napa earthquake.

Citizens learned of the latest evacuations through Nixel alerts. The city of Napa sent out alerts for a community meeting one hour before the meeting started and had a packed house.

Residents went to the county website at to see daily maps of where the fires had burned. County Supervisor Ryan Gregory said high-tech tool could be useful to evacuated residents from Mount Veeder and other areas.

“My friends and constituents up on the mountain, they want to know what’s happened to their house,” he said Friday. “Access is very limited, I can’t answer that. I would ask all those folks to please go out, find the maps that are online, do your best to interpret that and see where you stand.”

In Napa County, that world-famous bastion of the good life, just plain life became important. People stepped forward to help in ways big and small. The Napa Valley Community Foundation created a disaster relief fund for fire victims.

At the Napa Valley College shelter, young women playing cellos and violins to entertain the evacuees. Several of the women were evacuees themselves.

The new norm of living with Napa County wildfires won’t end overnight. Perhaps the county will ease back toward the old norm over time—at least for those for whom a return to normal is possible.

“I would suggest that over the next two weeks this is going to continue as is right now, with fire activities for sure,” City of Napa Fire Chief Steve Brassfield told citizens on Wednesday.

Smoke in the Napa Valley was so bad on Thursday and Friday that it seemed like a person could stab the crud in the air with a fork.

Then, seemingly magically, the Napa Valley received a breather on Saturday morning—literally. The Atlas Fire, which had been belching smoke like some sort of Industrial Age steel town, seemed relatively quiet. Smoke from the Nuns Fire blew into Sonoma County.

The result: Napans could see a blue sky and bask in unfiltered sunlight for the first time in days. People walked, biked and ran on roads amid vineyards north of the city of Napa, able to breath freely for the first time in a week.

A seemingly magic morning might be only a respite if shifting winds blow the Nuns and Tubbs fires back this direction. But perhaps there will be more breathers to come, more breaks between smoky days.

Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann expects flare-ups and hot spots to continue away from fire containment lines into the winter.

“Some of them, if they’re close to the line, we’re going to deal with it,” he said. “Stuff that’s way interior and doesn’t pose a threat to anyone’s property, we’re not going to do anything with.”

It may be up to the winter rains to fully extinguish the local fires across the 200 square miles.

As the smoke finally clears and evacuation areas and roads open, Napans will be able to drive around and see just how much they have lost. They will be able to see the homes and wineries destroyed, the vineyards singed, their favorite hiking spots left smoldering.

The disaster that hit seemingly out of the blue on Sunday night will linger for a long time to come. Before dealing with the aftermath, though, Napans must still make it through the main event.

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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.

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