CALISTOGA — It started as a distant plume of smoke. But in a few hours, it became a fast-moving inferno devouring tens of thousands of forest acres, devastating villages in rural Lake County and forcing thousands to race to safety and shelter in the south.
On Saturday, the Valley Fire broke out near the hamlet of Cobb and roared through more than 50,000 acres of drought-parched woods and rangeland, claiming dozens of homes and forcing an evacuation deep into Napa County. For many families, the hurried exodus – often with only their vehicles and the clothes on their backs – ended with a slow crawl into the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga, which relief workers turned into an instant city of cots, tents and shared loss.
On the same ground that hosts carnivals, rodeos and auto racing, hundreds of people inched SUVs, motor homes and pickups into the parking lots and lawn. Inside, the evacuees’ temporary homes ranged from a collection of cots inside Tubbs Hall to the dozens of tents pitched within sight of the rodeo canopy and the dirt race car track.
“My house burned down. Everything burned down,” said 33-year-old Justin Olson, whose belongings had been reduced to his black pants, Jeff Burton NASCAR T-shirt and a crumpled, near-empty pack of Seneca cigarettes in his pocket.
“All I have is just what I had on me. Didn’t even have a car – I hitchhiked down here; someone stopped and I jumped into the back of his pickup truck. All you could see was this big wall of fire coming toward us, almost as tall as the (Twin Pine) casino.”
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said wind gusts that reached up to 30 mph sent embers raining down on homes, and frustrated firefighters’ efforts to stop the Lake County blaze from advancing. Four firefighters were hospitalized with burns while battling the flames Saturday.
Lake County residents taking refuge in Calistoga shared stories of the Valley Fire’s wind-whipped spread catching them off-guard – forcing many to save themselves, their loved ones and nothing else.
“Whatever was in my arm’s reach, that’s what came with us,” said Ricardo Rodriguez of Davis, who was visiting relatives in Hidden Valley Lake when the blaze began shortly before 1:30 p.m. Saturday. “My uncle had a good view of the fire so he could gauge his time left. But the only fire I saw was two houses away from me, and then it was time to go. When I saw it, I just assumed Hidden Valley was no more.”
“By the time we got to Hardester’s (a local grocery and hardware store) the road was total chaos, a parking lot. There were moments on 29 where the west side was all on fire, with cars still next to it. It took five minutes to get the cars out of the way and get the other cars moving. The traffic, it seemed never-ending. Until we got to Lower Lake traffic was so heavy, it seemed like the fire would catch up to us.”
“It sounded like a tornado or an airplane: propane tanks going off like cannons one after another,” said Rodriguez’s uncle Daniel, one of a group of 15 relatives who fled Hidden Valley Lake in three vehicles. “It was just like, boom! And then two seconds later, boom! I’ve never been in a war, but I can imagine now what a battlefield sounds like.”
Home, for Fletcher and Barbara Thornton, had become a pair of cots, a suitcase and the company of their three dogs and two cats, which they had taken with them while fleeing their Middletown ranch. Their horses, loaded into trailers, also had made the trip with them, but like other Lake County livestock owners, the couple were unable to save their cattle and had to abandon them to the galloping flames.
“We’re fine; we lost everything,” Fletcher Thornton said without irony to someone on his cellphone. “A lot of people are less lucky than we are.”
“We thought we’d ride it out in the middle of the field, but it was just too hot. Houses went up in flames; propane tanks were blowing up. Not a fun deal, but better than burning up, I guess.”
At an afternoon briefing at the Napa County Fairgrounds, officials said they were preparing for a long stay for the evacuees, installing showers, laundry and telecommunications over the next day or so. CHP officers said to expect road closures for at least two days, probably longer.
County officials say law enforcement officers are mounting extra patrols in the evacuation zones to prevent looting. Spokeswoman Kristi Jordan said there had been reports of scam artists online trying to get evacuees to divulge their addresses on the pretense of checking on their homes. She advised evacuees not to reveal their addresses to anyone but officials.
In Angwin, Pacific Union College opened Winning Hall as a temporary shelter for evacuees, and the college’s Seventh-day Adventist church said the building’s main floor was filled by Sunday. The church also began an online fundraising drive for survivors, Valley Fire Relief (crowdrise.com/valleyfirerelief), and announced a half-price sale Tuesday at the Angwin Thrift Store, with all proceeds benefiting fire victims.
Pacific Union College Church said it would close its namesake elementary and college preparatory schools on Monday, on the advice of the Napa County Sheriff’s Department.
There was no immediate official tally of the destruction because firefighters were focused on new evacuation orders and on residents’ safety, but Berlant, posting to Twitter shortly before 2 p.m., said “we know 100s of structures have been destroyed.”
“This has been a tragic reminder to us of the dangers this drought is posing,” he said.
Later Sunday, people were told to evacuate Clear Lake Riviera, a town with about 3,000 residents, and other areas near the blaze, according to Cal Fire.
Residents streamed from Middletown on Saturday night and Sunday morning and had to dodge smoldering telephone poles, downed power lines and fallen trees as they drove through billowing smoke.
Damage appeared to strike without pattern. In Hidden Valley Lake, for example, 11 houses along Donkey Hill Road near Powderhorn were burned to the ground, while six others, next door and across the street, were unscathed.
In Middletown, the high school was undamaged while stores and several houses immediately across the street appeared to be completely destroyed.
George Escalona told The Associated Press that parts of his town, including his home, have burned to the ground.
In some areas of town “there is nothing but burned houses, burned cars,” Escalona said, adding that he has nothing left but the clothes he was wearing.
The 60-square-mile fire erupted Saturday afternoon and rapidly chewed through brush and trees parched by four years of drought, Cal Fire said. Entire towns as well as residents along a heavily wooded 35-mile stretch of Highway 29, extending into northern Napa County, were evacuated.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in both counties Sunday morning and authorized California National Guard troops to assist in the firefighting effort. Federal officials, meanwhile, said the disaster was so large that they would offer grants to reimburse up to 75 percent of certain firefighting costs.
Highway 29 remained closed late Sunday at Tubbs Lane above Calistoga. Communities along the Napa and Lake county border, including Berryessa Estates, were still under mandatory evacuation orders late Sunday.
The fire broke out shortly before 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and quickly swelled from a minor woodland fire to a major blaze. Cal Fire said the blaze was burning uncontained, moving southeast from the community of Cobb in Lake County.
Late Sunday, Cal Fire said the spread of the blaze had slowed considerably, giving firefighters hope of establishing a defense. They said, however, the fire was so dangerous and the brush so dry that evacuations would remain in place well ahead of the actual fire line.
At least four firefighters were injured while trying to halt the spread of the flames. Berlant, of Cal Fire, tweeted late Saturday that all four, members of a helicopter crew, suffered second degree-burns and were in stable condition at a hospital in Davis.
Evacuations were ordered into Pope Valley, as far as Pope Valley Garage and Howell Mountain Road. By dawn Sunday, more than 1,000 personnel from all over the North Bay were fighting the fire, including firefighters from 125 fire companies and four air tankers.
Because of the fire emergency, Calistoga officials scrambled to redesign the planned Harvest Table dinner, a dining event around a 1,000-foot-long banquet table that had been scheduled for Sunday evening in the middle of downtown Lincoln Avenue. Because the road also carries Highway 29, the main evacuation route out of the fire zone, the city could not close the road. Instead, restaurants scheduled to serve at the event would serve guests inside their regular dining rooms, the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce said early Sunday.