It's been more than a week since the fires broke out on the hills overlooking The Napa Valley. You've heard the media stories, now its time for a local to break the myths and set the record straight on what happened, how it happened, and what we as a community are doing to move forward.
It was 9:30pm on Sunday, October 8th when I was taking the trash out at my home in North/West Napa proper. The wind was blowing so hard that a canopy in my backyard caught a breeze and started lifting off of the ground. After securing it back down, I thought about the precarious tree that my company vehicle was parked underneath at my parents house off of Dry Creek road. So I quickly drove over to move it.
Driving north on dry creek road the houses turn to vineyards as you pass Alston park. It was at that moment that I saw the orange glow at the top of Atlas peak (9:45pm). As I pulled into our driveway looking east across our vineyard and into the valley, I jumped out of my truck and yelled to my father "Whats up with that Fire?" To which he replied "What Fire?". This was rather unusual as my Dad enjoys listening to the police scanner and is typically the first to know what's going on.
I checked the scanner, it was quite. So I scanned through Facebook (As we all do now) and saw nothing on the community Police & Fire pages. I was stunned, no one knew this fire was going on. In that few minutes, I watched the fire grow 3 times its size as the flames started coming down the mountain. We began calling everyone we knew on that side of the valley and telling them to get out now. This included alerting my clients from earlier that day who were staying at the Silverado Country Club. The scanner soon blew up with calls and Facebook was alive with panic. All I could do was watch in horror as this turned into the most incredible display of wildfire intensity I've ever witnessed.
As the wind stoked the fires and the flames grew to the size of Costco buildings - I could see bright flashes of blue light blinking from all corners of the valley. Transformers blowing as the trees fell across the power lines. The scanner buzzing with new fires popping up all over the valley hills. One of which was on Deer park road near my girlfriends parent's house. We jammed up-valley to help evacuate if needed. It felt as if we were driving through a post-apocalyptic movie. People were driving erratically, sirens were everywhere, fire could be seen stretching down the east part of the valley and word that a fire was now affecting the North part of Calistoga too. It is the closest experience I could relate to a war zone.
Arriving at Deer Park road, we realized they had contained the fire quickly and decided to head back to Napa. As we started driving south, our worst fears came true. Fire was now coming over the hills to the West of the valley threatening my parents home and vineyard. We were driven by adrenaline, driving as quickly as possible back to the house. I started calling friends on the west side of the valley to wake them up. It seemed as if no one was safe.
Needless to say, nobody slept that night as the fire was spreading rapidly with 35+ mph winds pushing it forward and dispersing embers. The next day didn't get any better. Most of the power grid in the valley was down, and even worse - several cell towers were down, halting almost all communication. The smoke was thick and intoxicating to the point where special breathing masks were needed. The fire was not slowing down and calls were in for massive reinforcements to help gain some control. Over the next week, thousands of homes were lost, a handful of businesses (including a few wineries) and several lives as the fires kept getting taunting us, creeping closer.
After a week of living in fear, these fires had tallied up a total of 136,081 burned acres in the three fires that affected Napa county (Atlas, Partrick/Nuns, Tubbs). Keep in mind all three fires have crossed county lines so the acreage is not inclusive of Napa county. We have about 4 casualties in Napa County (sadly, expecting this number to rise now that we are going back to investigate those still missing). Overall the containment level is about 70% and we are looking safe from the fire's path at this point.
So how did it happen? Well to fully understand how this happened, you have to rewind to last winter where we saw the most rainfall we've seen in 20 years. This gave way to an explosion of vegetative growth this past spring. After 6 months with hardly any rainfall this vegetation turned into fuel like most plants do when you do not water them for 6 months. Right around the onset of Fall every year the humidity begins to dissipate and the moisture is evaporated by the late season sunshine. The last piece of the wild fire puzzle are the winds, and with gusts up to 50 mph on that Sunday night, it didn't take long for trees to start falling on power lines. It was the combination of the arching and transformers blowing up that sealed the deal. Although the cause has not been determined yet, mother nature is the prime suspect. After all, it is wildfire season in California.
By far this most detrimental part of this natural disaster was the media circling the innocent.
Despite the headlines, Napa's ~45,000 acres of vineyards were largely untouched. This fire was a natural disaster - devastating the hills surrounding the valley but not the valley itself. The fire burned hot and fast, clearing most of the underbrush but leaving many trees intact. The wind has blown our smoke south and rain at the end of the week will clear the rest. Napa is still here and the strength and resilience of our community has made it more beautiful than ever. It's a bit more "quiet" than what you'd expect at this time, and that means what we need most is you. That's right, you can help by visiting Napa valley and better yet, drinking through your wine cellar to make room for more wine!
At this point many of you are wondering, when it will be safe to visit Napa valley again. The answer is now. This is the best time to visit, the leaves are changing colors, the last bits of fruit are picked and the smell of fermentation lingers in the air. Wine tasting, hot air balloons, mountain biking, fishing and hiking are a few of the activities that are all taking place over the next month but only until the cold of winter settles in. Time is of the essence, take advantage of the smaller crowds, better hotel rates and wine sales benefiting the community.
In the meantime, we rebuild as a community. Shelter those in need, feed the hungry and finish out the season #NapaStrong.
Napa Native Blog
Words from a local on the ground floor of the wine valley.