A north wind predicted to last into Saturday night brings more uncertainty for Napa County’s three major wildfires—the Tubbs, Nuns and Atlas—though recent news for Atlas Fire firefighting has been good.
Anticipating flame-fanning north wind, the National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for the North Bay hills from 5 p.m. Friday through 11 p.m. Saturday.
“Stay tuned,” county Supervisor Ryan Gregory said at Napa County’s Friday morning wildfire press conference.
On a somber note, Sheriff John Robertson announced two more deaths linked to the Atlas Fire, bringing the total to four. At about 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, they found the remains of two men at the 2300 block of Atlas Peak Road. One victim is 89-year-old Dr. George Chaney and the second is believed to be 79-year-old Edward Stone.
The Atlas Fire has burned almost 44,000 acres – 68 square miles – including residential areas outside Napa and in the mountains east of the city. Fire officials said it is 27 percent contained, with one containment line east of the city of Napa.
Though the Atlas Fire continues to burn, that containment line allowed Cal Fire to reopen such evacuation areas as Silverado, Monticello Park and The Avenues. County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said fire has been extinguished along the line extending back 300 feet into the fire area.
“People are going to see fire through the wintertime in the middle of this,” Biermann said, referring to areas farther behind the line. “We are going to have (burning) trees and hot spots. Some of them, if they’re close to the line, we’re going to deal with it. Stuff that’s way interior, that doesn’t pose a threat to anyone’s property, we’re not going to do anything with.”
Meanwhile, the Nuns, Partrick, Norrbom, Adobe and other fires in the Mayacamas mountains along the western Napa Valley merged into one fire – the 44,000-acre Nuns Fire. Fire crews Thursday into Friday battled the blaze in the Oakville Grade area.
The fire activity prompted Cal Fire early Friday to issue an advisory evacuation west of Highway 29 between the Oakville Grade and Rutherford Road. But now comes that predicted north wind.
A north or northeast wind could be a benefit, as it would push the fire back on itself so crews could continue work on containment lines, Biermann said. But a northwest wind would push the fire parallel to the mountains south down the valley.
That would be in the general direction of the city of Napa. Gregory said his friends and constituents living on the northwest edge of the city near Alston Park feel threatened by the Nuns Fire.
“No news is good news,” Gregory said. “No evacuation order means you’re OK. But keep an eye out. And I tell you what, the minute that neighborhood has to be evacuated, I live there with you by Alston Park, I’ll be evacuating. But no news is good news.”
Biermann said the western mountains haven’t had fires in a long time in the Napa and Rutherford areas. As a result, there are dense fuels that are harder for firefighters to cut through to create containment lines.
“That’s why we’re hitting it very hard … that’s why it’s one of our top priorities,” he said.
The 35,000-acre Tubbs Fire prompted the evacuation of Calistoga on Wednesday when it burned up Mount St. Helena. Supervisor Diane Dillon praised the effort by firefighters to protect the city.
“It’s not a sure thing, but they’re doing a great job and we’re feeling positive about their effort,” Dillon said.
Firefighting support has poured into Napa County from states as far away as Pennsylvania, as well as Canada and Australia. Biermann said the Atlas Fire on Friday had about 1,900 firefighters battling it, compared to about 400 two or three days ago.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, announced Friday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved aid to help individuals rebuild homes and recover property. It had previously approved public assistance for firefighting efforts and public infrastructure damage.
“The approval of individual assistance funds is the first step on the long road to recovery for Napa County and will be a tremendous help to families who have lost everything,” Thompson said in a press release.
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Belia Ramos said the county wants evacuees to feel they can use local shelters, regardless of immigration status. It doesn’t want anyone sleeping in their cars or in harm’s way.
Thompson has received a commitment from the Department of Homeland Security to continue suspending routine immigration enforcement in wildfire areas, Ramos said. The exception is when criminals pose a public safety danger.
“I will tell you that immigration is not a concern,” Ramos said.
County Public Health Officer Karen Relucio had advice for evacuees returning to their neighborhoods once evacuations are lifted. She said to wear protective equipment while in burned areas, such as breathing masks, goggles, construction boots and clothing that covers arms and legs.
But even as the county looks toward reopening evacuated areas and recovery, the predicted north winds pose the next big hurdle. The wildfires began Sunday night amid high north winds.
“We’re concerned. But we have a lot more resources now,” Biermann said. “We will be prepared and do everything we can.”