Joe Betz recently stood inside his almost-completed, rebuilt Silverado house that has risen from the ashes of the biggest wildfire disaster in Napa County history.
“It shows Napa is coming back,” a buoyant Betz said on a recent day as contractors planted fruitless olive trees outside his ocher-colored, tile-roofed house across the street from the golf course.
Napa County is coming back, but it still has a ways to go. Meanwhile, the county and state are trying to better prepare for the next time that all hell breaks loose.
On the night of Oct. 8, 2017, the Atlas, Partrick/Nuns and Tubbs fires started amid winds topping 60 mph. During the next two smoky weeks, the fires burned 144,000 acres in three counties and destroyed more than 650 Napa County homes.
The county as of late September had 152 building permit applications for replacement homes, with 89 issued to allow construction, records show. That means about 75 percent of those who lost homes aren’t yet ready to rebuild or might be moving elsewhere.
For Betz, the rebuilding process has gone smoothly. His insurance company came through and he is using the same contractor – Jesse Cappel – who remodeled the previous home in 2011.
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He is living in San Francisco and comes to Napa on weekends, staying in a rented Silverado condominium. He and his wife, Marion Betz, have seen their house being reborn to the point that the kitchen cabinets and the dishwasher are installed.
Betz, the owner of the House of Prime Rib in San Francisco, plans to be eating turkey inside his completed house on Thanksgiving.
“Or prime rib,” he said with a smile.
Across the Napa Valley, Terry Neff lost his Mount Veeder home in the Nuns fire that grew out of the Partrick and other fires. He is among those burned out who have yet to begin rebuilding.
Mount Veeder’s forests, one of the area’s draws, have slowed him down. Neff has a few hundred fire-damaged trees and bushes to remove as a first step, a challenge not everybody who lost a home faces.
“The other side of the valley on Atlas Peak, they don’t have a whole lot of vegetation over there,” Neff said.
Neff said he was underinsured and, being retired, is on a fixed income. One contractor told him the rebuilding price could be $1,000 a square foot because of the post-fire demand.
“You can’t get the same house that you had,” said Neff, who moved to Mount Veeder in 1971. “Because of the fire, we have to start looking at something else.”
Neff is looking at bringing in a less-expensive prefabricated house. More and more people are exploring that option, he said.
A possible obstacle arose – a prefabricated house company wasn’t certain it wanted to haul a house on narrow, bumpy Mount Veeder Road, which has long been in bad shape and took an additional beating during the 2017 storms.
Neff, who is renting a residence in downtown Napa, said he is in the “very beginning stages” of rebuilding.
PG&E ready to cut power
People such as Betz and Neff who lost homes are on the front line of the wildfire recovery effort. Another type of effort is going on in the legislative and bureaucratic worlds – making Napa County better prepared to face the next warm, dry night when wind gusts roar.
In June, Cal Fire said trees and tree limbs falling into PG&E lines sparked the Atlas and Partrick fires. It is still investigating the cause of the Tubbs fire. All of this makes utilities a big player in trying to prevent future wildfires.
State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, sponsored the Senate Bill 901 wildfire package signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. Among other things, it requires utilities to have procedures for de-energizing lines during extreme weather.
“We have the technology to be able to predict these windstorms,” Dodd said. “We also have the technology to be able to predict low humidity and high temperatures, which are keystones to these wildfires.”
Damage for the North Bay fires will total billions of dollars, Dodd said. A little inconvenience from a power shutdown goes a long way to saving lives and property. Utilities should work with hospitals and senior citizens centers to make certain people won’t be hurt by a precautionary outage, he added.
That can be a balancing act. San Diego Gas & Electric shut down power for four days to 17,000 customers in December 2017 as a precaution. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported complaints from rural residents in areas with only mild winds who couldn’t do such things as pump drinking water from their wells.
PG&E protocols for de-energizing lines as a last resort focus on areas designated by the state as being at extreme wildfire risk. In Napa County, those areas include Angwin and part of the Mayacamas Mountains, though not Atlas Peak.
PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said Napa County has 11,700 homes and businesses in these extreme fire areas.
“There’s no magic algorithm or formula as to when a public safety shutdown would happen,” Contreras said. “It isn’t going to be just because it’s a red flag warning day …. but it will be a high fire-threat area.”
If power is cut, the amount of time until restoration could be two to four days, Contreras said. The technology that restores power quickly for electric line problems won’t work in this case. Also, after a strong wind, PG&E will have to look for debris on the lines.
To help predict wildfire danger, PG&E is installing 200 weather stations in its coverage area, with nine of them already in Napa County. It is also installing fire detection cameras, including ones in Napa County on Atlas Peak, Berryessa Peak and Mount St. Helena.
Dodd said the state’s new wildfire protection laws will provide more money to help with fire suppression. Cal Fire units can be prepositioned in areas when the weather conditions warrant. More money will be available for mutual aid. More attention will be turned toward removing fuels.
“It’s incrementally for 2018,” Dodd said. “But every year, it should get better and better and better.”
New alert system
During the Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns fires, Napa County tried to keep residents up to date using the Nixle system. Residents could and still can sign up with the county to receive emergency alerts on their cellphones.
But the county wants to go further when trying to warn people that a fast-moving wildfire is heading in their direction. It wants to reach everyone with a cellphone, even if they are visitors who never heard about Nixle.
Napa County has joined the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system owned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This system allows the county to send warnings to all cell phones in the range of a local cellphone tower, without any sign-ups required.
People should hear their cellphones make a noise when an emergency WEA message arrives. The goal is to make them aware of the alert, even if they aren’t looking at their phone.
“This is intended to get everybody’s attention,” county Risk and Emergency Services Manager Kerry John Whitney said.
What exactly will the alert sound like? Residents should find out at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, when the county is scheduled to test the system.
“It’s our first test, so we don’t know what the outcome will be,” Whitney said. “I hope everyone in the county gets that alert.”
Napa County learned during the Atlas Fire that it can’t always depend on Nixle. The fire damaged cell tower infrastructure, leaving some people without cellphone service.
In addition, it took time for emergency officials amid the Oct. 8 chaos to assess the situation and use Nixle. During those early minutes, Whitney was evacuating his house as flames neared. Cal Fire reported that Atlas Fire broke out at 9:52 p.m., with the city of Napa sending its first Nixle alert at 11 p.m. and the county at 11:34 p.m.
Napa County is turning to an old-fashioned means of sounding an immediate alarm that doesn’t depend on cellphones – disaster sirens, though these are sirens with a twist.
The Sheriff’s Office has installed disaster warning siren tones on its vehicles, tones that sound different than the typical going-to-an-emergency noise that people might tune out. These sirens mean immediate danger.
One step the county didn’t take before the Oct. 8 wildfires was use Nixle to warn people of the expected windstorms and high fire danger. That too has changed. The county now sends Nixle alerts when the National Weather Service issues a red-flag warning.
In June, Cal Fire released a press release saying it had found at least 12 of the October 2017 wildfires in various counties were caused by tree limbs hitting PG&E lines and other utility failures. It referred its investigations for eight of those fires to District Attorney’s offices for review, including the Napa office for Atlas and Partrick fires.
Napa County Assistant District Attorney Paul Gero said recently that Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties have requested the state Attorney General’s Office review the cases. The Attorney General’s Office has yet to answer.
Monday’s one-year anniversary of the wildfires will no doubt stir unwanted memories. People will once again recall the days when the smoke hung over Napa Valley like a shroud, breathing masks were in high demand and flames hemmed in the valley, dashing here and there with changing winds.
Whether Napa’s worst fire disaster was the result of freakish, once-in-a-generation weather conditions or harbingers of a climate change future remain to be seen. But Napa County is girding for the next time.
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