Updated at 9:11 p.m. Tuesday — A cluster of five vegetation fires in Napa County started by lightning strikes Monday continued to burn into Tuesday night, gathering momentum and prompting more residential evacuations in rural areas.
Frightening plumes of white and gray smoke rose above the eastern edge of the Napa Valley Tuesday afternoon, bringing back memories of the 2017 wildfires that burned for days and wreaked havoc.
Unlike the 2017 blazes, which destroyed hundreds of homes, this week’s wildfires had consumed only a few buildings as of Tuesday morning, but hundreds more were being evacuated.
Cal Fire reported about 31,500 acres blackened in Napa County — from the Hennessey, Gamble, 15-10, Spanish and Markley fires — as of 8:15 p.m. Tuesday, with zero containment and 1,900 structures threatened.
Some 1,900 Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers in Napa County remained without power Tuesday night as a result of the wildfires, according to Deanna Contreras, spokesperson for the utility. Some customers were blacked out due to damage to PG&E equipment and others because of pre-emptive safety cutoffs made at the request of firefighters, she said.
The outages affected areas of Lake Berryessa, Pope Valley, St. Helena and Napa, according to Contreras. There is no timetable for the restoration of service until Cal Fire clears PG&E to enter fire zones and assess any equipment damage, she said.
Another 24,000 PG&E customers in Napa, Rutherford, Oakville, Angwin and Pope Valley also lost power at about 5:17 p.m. Tuesday but were restored by 7:30 p.m., Contreras reported.
These are tough fires to fight because of rugged terrain, triple-digit heat and “unfavorable” fire behavior, Cal Fire said in its morning report.
As the Hennessey Fire’s spread accelerated, Napa County issued an expanded evacuation order at mid-day Tuesday to include Berryessa Estates and Spanish Valley residential communities near Lake Berryessa. Two hours later, the order was expanded to include a portion of Soda Canyon Road, Highway 121 from Moskowite Corner to Wooden Valley Road, including the Circle Oaks community, and Atlas Peak Road from Bubbling Well Pet Cemetery to the end.
On Tuesday evening just after 7 p.m., evacuations were added for Wragg Canyon Road (from Highway 128 to the end of the road, including Pleasure Cove Resort) and Chiles Pope Valley Road (from Lower Chiles Valley Road to Pope Canyon Road).
At daybreak, the Hennessey Fire, which started east of Lake Hennessey, had threatened 205 structures and prompted mandatory evacuations near Highway 128 in the Lower Chiles and Chiles Pope Valley areas.
Overnight, the Hennessey Fire grew from 2,500 acres to 2,700 acres and had burned one structure and two outbuildings, Cal Fire said in its 6:40 a.m. report. By 8:15 p.m. it had spread to 10,000 acres, the agency said in its evening update.
An evacuation center was set up Monday at CrossWalk Community Church in Napa for people forced out of their homes by the fires.
The Gamble Fire, located above Lake Berryessa, had burned 10,000 acres of vegetation, while the 15-10 Fire near Putah Creek Bridge and Berryessa Knoxville Road had burned 8,000 acres of vegetation, Cal Fire reported Tuesday night. No structures were reported threatened by either fire.
Elsewhere in Napa County, the Spanish Fire near Spanish Flat had reached 1,000 acres while the Markley Fire near the Monticello Dam had grown to 2,500 acres.
Cal Fire said it had 501 personnel fighting the fires, including 55 engines and 21 bulldozers. Air tankers were in short supply because of multiple fires in the region, the agency said.
Cal Fire said there was zero containment of the fires, with no prediction of when they would be under control.
Smoke from the Napa County fires is being pushed into Solano and Yolo counties where residents of Vacaville, Woodland and Winters are reporting air quality problems.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District issued a Spare the Air alert for Tuesday and Wednesday. Wildfire smoke from numerous fires sparked by lightning over the weekend was expected to cause elevated levels of particulate pollution. Air quality is forecast to be unhealthful and smoke impacts are possible throughout the region, the district said.
Cal Fire was establishing a base camp at the Calistoga Fairgrounds. Approximately 400 fire fighters will be stationed there on a rotating basis.
In Angwin, the smoke billowed in the distance but had no discernible effect on air quality.
Stephen Smith pulled over to observe the smoke to the east from a lookout point along Howell Mountain Road above White Cottage Road.
“There’s not much wind, so that’s good. And there are no more lightning strikes, so that’s good,” he said. “But it’s hot, and that’s not good.”
Nina Elliott and her co-workers at Silverado Credit Union stepped outside to look at the smoke.
“It’s farther away than it looks, but when you see something like that ... “ she said, shaking her head. “That gets your attention.”
Cal Fire reported the following road closures: Chiles-Pope Valley Road, Sage Canyon Road, Lower Chiles Valley Road, Highway 128 along these areas and Highway 128 between Wragg Canyon Road and Pleasants Valley Road.
Napa County reported that evacuation orders remained in effect for Hennessey Ridge Road, Sage Canyon Road from Chiles-Pope Valley Road to Lower Chiles Valley Road and Highway 128 from Lower Chiles Valley Road to Monticello Road.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Tuesday that it had authorized the use of federal funds to assist the state of California in fighting the fires, which have been labeled the LNU (Lake-Napa Unit) Lightning Complex. The cluster also includes two fires in Sonoma County, the 13-4 Fire west of Healdsburg and the 11-16 Fire north of Jenner.
FEMA said the fires threatened a water treatment plant and high-voltage transmission lines serving the cities of Napa and Calistoga. The federal agency said it would pay up to 75% of firefighting costs.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency Tuesday to help ensure the availability of vital resources to combat fires burning across the state, which have been worsened by the effects of the historic West Coast heat wave and sustained high winds.
NapaCART (Napa Community Animal Response Team) was activated by the Napa County Emergency Operations Center to evacuate and shelter animals in response to the Hennessey Fire. Volunteers evacuated 46 horses to a shelter site, the organization said.
Pacific Gas & Electric said it had de-energized a line outside St. Helena on Monday morning at the request of firefighters working the Hennessey Fire. This cut off power to 209 customers.
Power will be restored as soon as it’s safe to enter the area to assess PG&E’s equipment, said company spokesperson Contreras.
Watch Now: Wine Country Lightning Storm, August 16, 2020
Register reporter Howard Yune and St. Helena Star reporter Jesse Duarte contributed to this report.
You can reach City Editor Kevin Courtney at email@example.com or at 707-256-2217.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.