DEER PARK — Tony Leonardini once fought fires in St. Helena. Now, he is capturing images of the latest wildfire to tear through his Napa Valley – and its aftermath.
Since the Glass Fire erupted in the upper Napa County woodlands before sun-up on Sept. 27, the business owner and former St. Helena city firefighter has recorded video footage and photos of the wildfire’s advance – from smoke columns above vineyards to fire crews battling flames to the ashy remains where houses once stood on winding, forest-lined byways.
A week after the Glass Fire's eruption in the Deer Park area, its destruction of homes and buildings remained in stark evidence.
Sunday morning, one week after the fire had begun, Leonardini was once again on the road in his crew-cab pickup truck, periodically stopping to capture images of what the latest Napa Valley firestorm had left behind.
Through air still bitter and irritating seven days into the wildfire, Leonardini wended his way past the wreckage of a building at Foothills Elementary School, where only a couple of overturned file cabinets were recognizable in the rubble. A short stroll away was a morass of twisted metal pipes and wall stumps that had been the Haven thrift shop, where a whiteboard now announced: “We are full. No more donations at this time!”
As Leonardini’s pickup truck approached the crossing of Sanitarium and Deer Park road, the capriciousness of the wildfire was as stark as the contrast between two houses on either side of the street – the one to his right somehow intact, the one on his left reduced to a charred chimney like dozens of others nearby.
“Why is that gone?” he asked, turning his head one way. Turning in the other direction, he asked: “Why is that there?”
Jumping into action when the Glass Fire began as an angry orange glow against a black Upvalley sky, Leonardini had shared some of the earliest images of an inferno fanned by wind gusts across a landscape parched by several years of drought in the 2010s. If the size of the fire did not quite surprise him, the speed and direction of its spread did.
“I saw the big black columns of smoke, and the homes going up. It was rough – you don’t expect it to get this large,” he said, piloting his pickup down a two-lane road made narrower in places by fallen trees. “The fire went into the wind to Summit Lake – I’m thinking, ‘How can it do that?’”
“I worked 24 hours straight, slept two hours – even slept through the hi-lo sirens – and then I did it again. I didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but my sister told me these people want to know, so get on video, get onto Facebook Live. I know the roads, I know the area, I know a fire’s behavior. I can help calm people down.”
On Oak Street and Pine Place, the ferocity of the Glass Fire remained much in evidence days after the flames had roared through. House after house was an acrid and powdery ruin, the ground still smoldering on some lots. Inside the burned-out shells that had been cars and pickups, globules of glass wrapped around steering columns, all that was left of now-molten windshields.
Leonardini pulled up to a row of housing lots on Pine Place, where one of the resident couples gingerly stepped through scorched remains – Carrie and Neil Gehrke, who had evacuated on the first afternoon of the fire with their twin son and daughter.
“Our kids each took their baby photos – I didn’t know that until we got to the hotel,” Carrie Gehrke said on her first visit back to the remains of her and others’ homes on the street. “There are things we wouldn’t have if the kids hadn’t taken them, or told me to.”
Not making the trip away from the fire, however, were the family’s eight chickens.
“I spent the last 30 minutes (before evacuating) giving them buckets of water and tons of food, all the food we had – I tried to give them enough for a week,” she recalled. “Should’ve spent that time putting them in the truck.”
Although the Gehrkes appeared to keep their composure, the destruction left them almost speechless for a moment. “The fact the whole street is gone, that’s pretty crazy,” Carrie said.
Elsewhere, Rob Ingham, principal of the Foothills Adventist Elementary School, was taking stock of the long road toward a semblance of normalcy with the campus’ 1936 building leveled and the surviving two school buildings likely unusable for weeks with utilities cut off.
“Ideally we’d want to go to in-person classes as quickly as possible, because the kids need the distraction,” he said Sunday afternoon of the school’s 31 students. “But the other piece is that we have families evacuated all over. We have to wait to see when families can get back in, and what it’ll look like when they do get back in.”
Even a return to online instruction remained uncertain, as many of the electronic devices Foothills had issued students before reopening classrooms Sept. 14 were being stored on campus when the fire broke out. Also lost was much of the school’s curriculum for upper grades that was in paper form, according to Ingham.
“It’s been somewhat stunned; it’s been pretty overwhelmingly sad,” he said about the mood of parents and alumni who have contacted him during the fire. At the same time, he added, “I’ve also heard from parents, a lot of talk about how we’re family and we take care of each other and work together. As a family, we’ve been through it.”
Another person Ingham felt compelled to comfort, he recalled, was a firefighter who apologized to him for not being able to save the Foothills building.
“They felt they had it under control and then the wind kicked up,” he said. “I had a frank conversation with him – I told him we can replace a building, but we can’t replace firefighters.”
Meanwhile, the battle against the Glass Fire turned a corner at the start of its second week, as fire crews made enough progress to allow Calistoga to start welcoming residents back following a six-day evacuation.
Effective 3 p.m. Sunday, the city downgraded the evacuation order it had imposed Sept. 28 to a warning, allowing residents to return to Calistoga at their own risk. “While a potential threat to the City remains, the threat is no longer imminent,” city officials said in a Nixle alert.
Roads and streets within city limits are open and passable, and public water and sewer services were fully functional, according to the city. Electricity is currently being provided by a PG&E facility on lower Washington Street and temporary generators installed at the substation off of Highway 29. Internet and phone service have also been restored, although cell phone coverage may be spotty.
PG&E asks that customers not try to turn the gas on themselves if they do not have gas, nor try to light their pilot lights, according to spokesperson Deanna Contreras. Instead, customers should allow PG&E employees to do so for them.
Cal Fire reported 26% containment of the Glass Fire as of 7 p.m. Sunday, with the fire spreading to 64,900 acres.
Watch Now: Firefighters race to save homes from Glass Fire