CALISTOGA – Twenty-four hours after Cal Fire issued a mandatory evacuation of this town of 5,200 at the upper corner of Napa Valley, the scene might have been lifted from a post-apocalyptic novel. The only sounds to be heard Thursday afternoon were the rumblings of police motorcycles and caravans of firetrucks, the streets otherwise empty under a hazy sky.
North of city limits, the hills were in flames.
Sunday night, the Tubbs fire started just outside of town here and swept west at a terrifying speed, roaring all the way to Santa Rosa — a distance of 10 miles in under 6 hours — consuming entire neighborhoods in its path. After a change in the winds, the remnants of that blaze started to burn east, reaching the flank of Mount St. Helena.
From Knights Valley, just over the hill from Calistoga on Highway 128, billowing smoke was visible from the lower elevations of the mountain’s west buttress.
And Thursday morning, the fire jumped Highway 29 on the southern side of the peak, somewhere between the crest of the highway at Robert Louis Stevenson State Park and the intersection of 29 and Old Lawley Toll Road. Then, according to Franz Valley volunteer fireman and nearly lifelong resident Bud Pochini, the wind shifted and the fire doubled back just as it reached the scenic Palisades that help make Calistoga so picturesque.
Pochini had scarcely stopped working since Sunday night, though his own house in Knights Valley, and his sister’s next door, were among the casualties.
The battle against the fire was being fought in extremely steep and rugged terrain amid erratic winds, said Lake County Cal Fire division chief Greg Bertelli.
So far, no structures have burned within city limits.
“Right now, the object is to kick the crap out of the fire and keep the people safe,” said Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning.
The Napa County Fairgrounds served as staging grounds for a massive firefighting operation that included dozens of fire engines, EMT and law enforcement vehicles from all over the state to help manage traffic.
Calistoga was the only town in Wine Country subject to complete evacuation, and its normally bustling downtown, with 19th-century stone buildings and western facades, was deserted Thursday. Most of the storefronts were dark, though a few pieces of neon remained lit. The electronic sign at the Smoke Shop liquor store still displayed current payouts for the various state lottery scratchers. A newspaper rack offered Tuesday editions of several papers.
The townspeople hadn’t had much time to pack up Wednesday when ordered out. Only a couple of downtown business even had notes on their doors. Soo Yuan, a Chinese restaurant, informed customers with a sign that read, “We are sorry to say, but due to recent events our restaurant will be closed for the day.” The Calistoga Roastery, a popular coffeehouse, couldn’t staff its counters, adding in a sign: “However, we will be open when we can and are optimistic that we will be back to business as usual before the end of the week.”
That now seems impossible.
Around town, Calistoga’s residential streets were all but dormant. A few houses had sprinklers running continuously; at a couple of them, occupants had placed the sprinklers atop the roofs.