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Natural Disasters

Wind-whipped wild fires bookend Napa, army of firefighters grows

From the THE LATEST: Napa County Wildfire Updates series

Three large wildfires raged through Napa County on Monday, destroying homes, forcing hundreds to evacuate and prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency.

Wind gusts of 35 mph and greater fanned flames during a hellacious Sunday night that gave way to a hellacious Monday. Dozens of homes in the Atlas Peak/Silverado area and at least one in the Carneros area went up in smoke.

By 4:30 p.m. Monday, the state reported the Atlas Fire east of the city of Napa had consumed 25,000 acres and the Partrick Fire west of the city had consumed 3,000 acres. The Tubbs Fire west of Calistoga had consumed 25,000 acres, devastating part of Santa Rosa.

Also at 4:30 p.m. Monday, county spokesman Kevin Lemieux said containment was zero for all three fires. None of the county’s numerous evacuation area orders had been lifted.

Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said the Atlas Fire destroyed more than 50 homes, barns and other structures, though that was an initial estimate.

“This fire developed rapidly,” Biermann said. “When the first units got on scene, it was reported to be 100 acres to 200 acres in the hills of Atlas Peak and it rapidly advanced with the very strong wind on it.”

By 9:30 a.m. Monday, the Atlas Fire had spread several miles from Atlas Peak south to near the Solano County line. People evacuated from such areas as Silverado, Wooden Valley and Coombsville, though emergency officials couldn’t give a number.

On the other side of the city of Napa, the Partrick Road fire moved toward Sonoma County. It destroyed at least one home on Henry Road and prompted more than 200 evacuations from various parts of the Carneros area, including the Carneros Resort & Spa.

Emergency officials said the unusually high winds were a key ingredient to the fire outbreak. Still, why three large fires in different parts of the county starting in a single night?

“I don’t know,” Biermann said. “The causes will be under investigation, for sure. But when we have high winds, it’s not uncommon to have trees that go down … these could bring power lines down. We have very low humidity. It doesn’t take much for anything to cause a fire.”

He called the fire conditions Sunday night “pretty unprecedented for the valley” at this time of year.

“We had very strong gusts,” Biermann said. “It was erratic winds. Once the fires got started, they rapidly developed.”

Queen of the Valley Medical Center canceled elective outpatient procedures Monday after losing power and having to operate on generators. Power was restored by 9 a.m., said Vanessa DeGier, a hospital spokeswoman.

The hospital emergency room treated 50 people for fire-related conditions, including respiratory distress and mostly minor burns, she said. One person had to be evacuated to a regional burn center. Others broke bones in falls during evacuations.

For evacuees, Monday was a stressful day of waiting to find out if their homes had survived the blaze.

Joel Tranmer was eating in downtown Napa around 11 a.m., having been forced to flee his house on the slopes of Mount George. The Atlas Fire swept through that general area on its way toward the Solano County line.

“We don’t know if the house burned or not,” Tranmer said. “They just said the fire is still going.”

He recalled having another house consumed in another monster blaze, the notorious 1981 Atlas Peak Fire that destroyed 65 structures and blackened 23,000 acres. But he had never seen anything like Sunday night and Monday morning, when Napa Valley seemed to be wall-to-wall flames and smoke.

“Even that fire wasn’t anything like this,” Tranmer said.

Jami Laveder, her 87-year-old mother and 15-year-daughter evacuated their small ranch near Hagen Road east of the city of Napa at about 3 a.m. Monday. As they left, they could see the glow of the Atlas Fire less than a mile away.

They ended up at the Napa County Expo because it had plug-in services for their house trailer, as well as room for their 3-month-old calf. They sat outside at 12:30 p.m. Monday under a smokey sky, emergency fire reports blaring over their radio and large ashes occasionally wafting down.

“We know nothing,” Laveder said as they pondered the fate of their house.

She said she has lived there for 47 years. She too recalled the 1981 Atlas Peak Fire, though she didn’t have to evacuate that time. She’d never seen Napa County ablaze as on Monday.

“Absolutely not,” Laveder said. “I’ve never, ever experienced anything like this before.”

Napa Mayor Jill Techel said Monday morning that no homes had burned within the city of Napa. The city has been concerned about the Browns Valley area in the west and the Alta Heights area in the east and had bulldozers helping to put in fire lines.

The city evacuated about 100 homes from Montecito Boulevard and Monte Vista Avenue areas of Alta Heights. People trying to reach local residents by phone should know that cellphone coverage within the city has been very limited, Techel said.

Napa County Sheriff John Robertson at the Monday press conference said Sheriff’s officials went door-to-door Sunday night and Monday morning telling people to evacuate from the fires. They were assisted by officials from the Contra Costa and Solano County sheriff’s offices and the Napa and Fairfield police departments.

“We have areas we could not get to because trees were down and power poles were down, preventing us from going in,” Robertson said. “This was a rapid, rapid fire event. There were some places we just couldn’t get to. We haven’t had any reported injuries yet, so we’re praying for the best.”

Some people were rescued from the Atlas Peak area by helicopter, he said.

Napa County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Belia Ramos said at 3 p.m. Monday that Cal Fire had requested 24 strike teams. Equipment from around the state was coming to the county, she said.

A Cal Fire fire crew strike team has at least 30 firefighters, according to the agency. An engine strike team has five fire engines with three to four firefighters in each engine. On Monday, fire equipment from such places as Los Angeles and Alameda counties could be seen in Napa.

Biermann said the emergency crews on Monday morning had an air attack to help try to control the fires, though he didn’t say how many air tankers were available. Air resources will be prioritized among the multiple fires in the area, he said.

He stressed the importance of the firefighting aircraft.

“As of right now, with these conditions, we can’t get in front of this (Atlas) fire and do anything about its forward progress,” he said during the morning press conference.

While the Tubbs Fire started outside Calistoga near Bennett Lane, it moved west into Santa Rosa in Sonoma County where it did its major damage, leveling businesses and residential areas.

No evacuations were called for in Calistoga, but the Napa County Fairgrounds served as a shelter for Upvalley residents.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said Napa County faced a “tragic situation.”

Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, called Monday “a really devastating day.” On behalf of the Assembly speaker, she said the state will do whatever it can so people can put their lives back together.

Gov. Brown’s state of emergency declaration covers Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties because of multiple fires in the area.

Weekly Calistogan editor Anne Ward Ernst contributed to this story.


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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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