ST. HELENA — It had been a long day for the St. Helena Fire Department: the Wine Train had hit a tour bus south of town and firefighters from around the area had been called to a fire at an auto salvage yard in American Canyon.
But for the three St. Helena firefighters, the day was about to get worse than they could have ever imagined. That night they spotted an orange glow near Atlas Peak Road northeast of Napa.
Adam Waters, Mark Macias and Elliot Bell were the first firefighters on scene that windy night of Sunday, Oct. 8. They would spend the next two days fighting the Atlas Fire, a wildland blaze that would grow to historic proportions — 462 homes destroyed, 51,624 acres blackened.
Bell said he was able to grab a few brief cat naps over the next few days. Other St. Helena firefighters assigned to the Atlas and Tubbs fires said they weren’t able to get any sleep at all from the time they woke up Sunday morning until they were released from duty Tuesday night.
“It was pretty overwhelming at first,” said Bell, who had never been assigned to a fire. “It was threatening structures when we got there – it was about 150 acres already and moving really fast.”
He and other members of the St. Helena Fire Department recalled the frantic early days of the fires during last Thursday’s community potluck at Lyman Park, held to thank them and other first responders for their service during the October fires.
High winds and dry conditions made it impossible to fight the fast-moving fire, so Waters, Macias and Bell spent much of Sunday night evacuating people from their homes.
Civilians fled in a line of cars headed down Atlas Peak Road. At one point, they started coming back up, telling firefighters that a fallen walnut tree had made the road impassable. The St. Helena crew used chainsaws to cut up the tree, and then Macias used Engine 217 to push clear a parked car that a panicked driver had abandoned in the middle of the road. The fire engine sustained some minor damage, but homeowners once again had a clear escape route.
Some people were afraid to leave their homes. Others were physically unable.
“Calls keep coming in every minute at least, of possible entrapments on Soda Canyon Road and Atlas Peak Road,” Macias said. “We’re trying to figure out where they’re at and whether they’re old calls.”
The constant radio traffic made it difficult to communicate and gave an idea of how widespread and fast-moving the fires were.
“These were the first-, sixth-, 10th- and 16th-most destructive fires (in California history), all started within the same hour,” said firefighter Johnnie White of the blazes that covered Napa and Sonoma counties.
Once the area was clear of civilians, Engine 217 switched to structure protection. Fallen trees and heavy smoke made even driving from house to house a struggle.
“At one point, the fire was on both sides of the road and the lead engine stopped because they couldn’t see anything,” Macias said. “It was too much for us too, too much smoke, too much fire, it was pushing up against the engine. Smoke was filling up the cab and our eyes were watering. It finally calmed down a little bit and a Cal Fire dozer got in front of us to clear all these trees that kept falling in front of us.”
Fire Chief John Sorensen, who’d been working the Tubbs Fire, said an Alameda County firefighter later approached him to thank the men of Engine 217 for “driving through a wall of fire” to deliver a portable pump to his crew, allowing them to siphon water from a pool after their own water supplies had been exhausted.
Later on Monday, Engine 217 was sent east on Monticello Road, near Kenzo Estate, where they spent the next 24 hours protecting more structures from the Atlas Fire.
As the Atlas Fire spread, other St. Helena firefighters were fighting what was to become by far the most destructive fire in California history in terms of structures burned: the Tubbs Fire.
As soon as Johnnie White, Martin Macias and JP Havens arrived at the intersection of Highway 128 and Bennett Lane, dispatch said people were reporting being trapped. Calistoga’s Engine 419, which at the time was the only other unit on the scene, used its bumper to push open an electric gate. The Calistoga crew then moved on to evacuate other people as a few cars escaped past the open gate and St. Helena’s Brush 17 rescued the people in the small neighborhood behind the gate.
As the crew of Brush 17 continued down the road toward a few other houses, “all you could see was fire,” said White.
“The wind was blowing like nothing I had ever seen before,” he said. “We were just focused on getting people out.”
They knocked down two more gates, rescued two more people who’d been stranded in a car, and made their first effort at structure protection before heading back to Highway 128 and rendezvousing with the Cal Fire incident commander.
By this time, St. Helena Engine 317 – manned by Scott Dale, Nick Solakian and Ryan Smithers — had arrived from the salvage yard fire in American Canyon, having dropped off Smithers in St. Helena to pick up Water Tender 20.
Cal Fire assigned St. Helena’s Brush 17 and Engine 317, Angwin’s Engine 18, and three bulldozers to cut a containment line from Highway 128 to Franz Valley School Road in order to protect the city of Calistoga.
Firefighters laid almost a half-mile of hose up a steep hill. During the ensuing firefight, hoses were burned by encroaching flames and burst from the extreme water pressure required to push water uphill for 2,500 feet.
“We realized we were in a bad spot and weren’t going to be able to do anything,” White said.
The fire prevented them from going back down the hill the same way they’d come up, so they and the bulldozer operators hiked cross-country down to Highway 128, where they learned that reinforcements stationed at a higher elevation had been able to continue their work on the containment line, without the disadvantage of having to pump water uphill.
Meanwhile, a battalion chief on Calistoga Road kept radioing for help, but most units were already trying to save neighborhoods and businesses in northern Santa Rosa. When St. Helena firefighters arrived, the grateful battalion chief said he’d buy them all a beer if they could keep the fire on the north side of Calistoga Road.
Over the next few hours, the fire jumped the road four times, but they were able to put it out each time and prevent it from spreading to Spring Mountain. (White said he’s still looking forward to that beer.)
Crews spent the rest of Monday and Tuesday setting backfires, protecting house after house along Petrified Forest Road, and defending the Petrified Forest Visitors Center.
“We saved anything we could, anything with good defensible space,” Dale said. “The people who’d put the time in to protect their own homes, those were the homes we could defend the most.”
Whenever they got a chance to listen to the radio, they were shocked to hear the fire had moved from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in barely three hours.
“We heard about it jumping 101 and we’re like ‘What? We’re in Calistoga. Must be a different fire,’” said Dale.
St. Helena firefighters at the Tubbs Fire also rescued an Uber driver who’d gotten stranded and said he’d “just wanted to see the fires,” according to Sorensen.
Back at base
Firefighting isn’t just about fighting fires. Administrative Assistant Alec Vidler was assigned to stay at the firehouse with the two units being held in reserve to handle emergency calls in St. Helena.
Just hours after Vidler had been celebrating his anniversary with his wife at a restaurant, he and the firefighters who remained in St. Helena were spending Sunday night and Monday dealing with medical aids, false fire alarms, and reports of smoke.
“I was doing that while other guys were out fighting the fires on the front lines, doing their hero stuff,” he said. “I was more in the background making sure everything was running OK. It was a real group effort.”