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One fast-moving homeowner begins rebuilding house incinerated by Atlas Fire

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Joe Betz

Joe Betz, who lost his Silverado Resort and Spa home in the Atlas Fire, is one of the first homeowners to begin the rebuilding process. He discusses the process so far, while giving a tour of his Westgate Drive home.

Here’s a sign of rebirth amid the devastation of the Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs fires – Joe Betz has started rebuilding his Silverado area home.

Workers at his Westgate Drive lot are installing the wooden frames for a foundation to be poured within a few weeks. Betz hopes to have his new house finished by Thanksgiving.

He holds the only rebuilding permit issued by the county as of Monday. County Chief Building Official Michael Zimmer said another permit application is in plan review and might be finished by week’s end.

That means Betz could be the first person to complete a comeback from wildfire damage, although residents who are buying prefabricated homes might beat him.

Joe Betz

Joe Betz

“I decided I’m not going to be a victim,” said Betz, who owns House of Prime Rib in San Francisco.

At a Jan. 22 community meeting, Napa County officials vowed to put recovery from the October wildfires on the fast track. If people who lost homes have their paperwork together and are rebuilding a similar home, they can obtain the necessary county building permits in a week to two weeks, they said.

“If it takes you awhile to build your house, it won’t be because of the county,” Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison told the crowd.

More than 600 homes were destroyed. The Betz case provided an early test of whether the county can follow through on its rebuilding-friendly claims. Betz said he received the permit in seven working days.

“It’s not lip service,” Betz said. “They really, truly tried to help.”

He didn’t expect such an easy bureaucratic ride.

“Of course not,” Betz said with a smile. “Of course not. Are you kidding?”

He’s building the same-sized house the same height in the same footprint, with the same setbacks and driveway. That’s the easiest approach to take to obtain county permits swiftly.

Things went smoothly with his insurance company, Farmers Insurance, Betz said. He found builders by using the same contractor and architect who remodeled the 1980s-era home after he bought it in 2011.

Given all this, Betz appears to have a best-scenario case for rebuilding. In contrast, a county report said about half of the people whose homes suffered fire damage are under-insured.

Joe Betz

Joe Betz is starting to rebuild his Silverado area home destroyed in the Atlas Fire. 

On a recent day, Betz scrambled around the steep grade of a property being reborn. Workers put the finishing touches on a concrete fence. The landscape also was regenerating, with Betz pointing to burned oaks showing green sprouts.

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What a difference from the night of Oct. 8. Betz recalled how his cousin went outside to tie down the umbrella because of the wind and saw the Atlas fire in the hills, prompting Betz to go have a look.

“The sky was red,” Betz said. “Just like this, flames are coming toward us. From there, I went back down, I said, ‘Let’s get out, let’s get out.’ We ran into the car.”

Like many who made a dash to safety, he saw some harrowing sights, forcing him to rethink the initial evacuation route.

“It was a firestorm,” Betz said. “It wasn’t like pieces or embers. There were chunks shooting across the street.”

As he evacuated, he stopped by the house of a friend in the nearby Highlands and woke him up. He called more people to let them know of the fast-approaching fire.

Betz’s house was a total loss. Betz left a car in the garage and the engine melted around the crankshaft. In his backyard, the fire incinerated a metal table, but left lounge chairs near the pool untouched.

Joe Betz

Joe Betz's Silverado area home was destroyed in the Atlas Fire. He is beginning to rebuild.

Betz keeps his fire story in perspective. He also has a home in San Francisco and a Silverado condominium he owned before buying the Westgate Drive house, so he has places to live.

“We’re fortunate,” Betz said. “We’re not the ones to have to feel sorry for. There are so many people who lost everything.”

Napa County reports that the October wildfires destroyed 653 homes within the county. A county survey of the owners shows that 83 percent intend to rebuild, 16 percent don’t plan to rebuild – presumably they’ll sell the home sites – and the remainder aren’t certain.


Napa County Reporter

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