Subscribe for 33¢ / day

Six people dead, nearly 400 structures destroyed or damaged. A drive up the closed Atlas Peak Road, near Silverado Resort & Spa, was sobering. So much destruction.

The Atlas Fire began at 9:52 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 8. As of Tuesday morning, the Atlas Fire, also called the Southern LNU Complex, had burned more than 51,000 acres and was 77 percent contained. Other facts, all gleaned from CalFire, include:

388 structures destroyed

55 structures damaged

3,428 total personnel

373 engines

60 hand crews

47 bulldozers

30 water tenders

21 helicopters

2 emergency shelters

4 animal shelters

21 roads closed

Cause under investigation

Some 60 hours after the fire started, my brother Peter and I were on assignment, headed up Atlas Peak Road. As soon as we got past Silverado Resort, we saw a beautiful stone fireplace standing in the midst of ashes and burned debris. The fire was so hot it not only burned the house and contents, it incinerated them. Nothing was left.

Homes on both the east side and west side of the road were in various stages of destruction, mostly demolished. As we drove slowly up Atlas Peak Road, we saw the signs of the wildland fire that had swept through there late Sunday night and early Monday. A car was burned up, abandoned in the middle of one lane, headed away from the fire.

We got to the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park at 2462 Atlas Peak Road. It’s two miles from Silverado Trail and was established in 1971. A sad little sign that said “Office” pointed to a burned-out hulk of a building. An open fire was burning … maybe from a gas pipe. The trees around the office were burned. A bronze dog and cat statue stood in front of a parking lot, where a car sat, burned, destroyed.

The green grass, where the animals are laid to rest, was untouched and provided a brilliant contrast to the dominant colors of the fire — gray and black. It was remarkable and hopeful, on the green grass of the cemetery, there was a herd of 15 deer, grazing. Everything else was gone.

As we drove up that rough road and swerved to miss low-hanging power lines from a downed power pole, we encountered little traffic, a couple of PG&E emergency trucks, and a gray pickup truck headed downhill.

A sleek, white speedboat on a trailer was parked on a side road … beyond that, a large Caterpillar earth-moving machine was parked. The flames from the Atlas Fire left them both unscathed.

Peter was worried. He works with the owner of Circle R Ranch, 3683 Atlas Peak Road, and there was a lot of heavy equipment on the 1,600-acre ranch. Twenty-six acres of cabernet sauvignon vines are planted in two large blocks; the heavy equipment for earth moving, rock crushing and tree removing is for planting another 30 acres of chardonnay and cabernet on the property. What had the fire done to the equipment?

Another mile and we reach Circle R Ranch property. The 400 acres on the east side of Atlas Road were donated to the Napa County Land Trust as a wildlife corridor, linking with ranches to the south and north, creating a pathway five miles long. It’s critically important habitat as animals get crowded out of the Napa Valley and it is even more important with the damage wrought by the wildland fires.

Another mile or so and we’re at the gate for Circle R Ranch. The dry grass burned in the field, but not the trees. Nor did the wildfire reach the barn, windmill and large stack of hay. Around the vineyards, the fire burned up to the fence, and even burned a few fence posts, but the 9-year-old cabernet sauvignon grapevines were untouched. As we drove up Atlas Peak Road we saw 10 vineyards and, remarkably, 98 percent of the vines we saw were just fine. And most of them had grapes hanging down.

“I don’t think much has been harvested from Atlas Peak Road, yet, because it is high altitude and a cooler climate than the valley floor, so generally we pick in mid to late October,” Peter said. The Brix reports they were getting from the first week of October indicated the grapes would be ready for harvesting on Oct. 12.

Four or five other structures, including barns and storage buildings, were intact; two houses are being built on the property, but at this stage they are just foundations, they were undamaged.

Why did the Atlas Fire largely skip Circle R Ranch?

It was because the land was cleared of brush, around the barns, there were dirt roads and no weeds. Around the vineyards, there was a buffer zone where nothing could burn.

Since the property was bought two years ago, tens of thousands of man hours have been spent clearing brush, dead trees and the undergrowth to create defensible space. The flames reached six feet up on the live oaks, but not into the trees’ canopies.

Peter said, “I’m sure a lot of people thought it was a bit crazy to do that, but in hindsight it was brilliant, because most of the land now is flat with some beautiful old oak trees. I think many of those were saved, because a lot of the underbrush is gone; there was no fuel to create a really hot fire.”

As the Atlas Fire spread, Peter’s biggest concern was the cattle and horses that were on site. Ranch manager Rob Jinks took a horse trailer up to the property and loaded four of the five horses in it and brought them to safety. The fifth horse, a mustang, wouldn’t get in the trailer and was left with the cattle. All were fine on Wednesday, drinking the water and eating the hay that was spread for them. It was clear that Rob risked his life to get the horses out.

The 26 acres of cabernet sauvignon vines provide about 100 tons of grapes, sold to 11 Napa Valley wineries. The grapes, worth an estimated $1 million, remain on the vines, waiting for the road to open before a crew can harvest the grapes.

During a wildfire, obviously, the first priority is people, Peter said, the second is property and animals and a distant third is the grapes. It would be a shame if they were lost, but it would pale in comparison to the lives lost and other property that has been damaged.

Farther up the road, now about six miles from Silverado Resort, we reach Dos Lagos Vineyards. Here the property is intact, the vehicles in the driveway, the house and storage buildings untouched by the fire. Here, too, cabernet sauvignon grapes hang on the vines, waiting to be picked, crushed, fermented, blended, aged and bottled. In the distance, though, there’s a small fire with a lot of smoke, both white and more worrisome, dark and black.

Next door, at 4088 Atlas Peak Road, we saw a destroyed garage with a burned flatbed truck in it; and another collapsed and destroyed storage building with flames burning underneath metal roof panels. Thankfully, the house was intact, having a narrow escape it seems. As we drove down the driveway, fire was smoldering in a tree trunk, the grass was burned and still hot.

We turned around and stopped at VinRoc Wine Caves, owned by Michael Parmenter and Kiky Lee. Fire had gutted their beautiful house – all that was left standing was reinforced concrete walls. A SUV was burned in the garage. The guest house was destroyed.

But Parmenter was upbeat, because he said the wine cave endured the fire and the wines inside were not damaged. The fire had damaged the vineyards, he said, but they’ll come back and the vineyard infrastructure looks intact.

Driving back down Atlas Peak Road, we saw more destroyed houses and a few that the Atlas Fire left unscathed. As we passed the police checkpoints, we realized we were the lucky ones, because we were able to leave the neighborhoods of death and destruction behind.


St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star, The Weekly Calistogan and st