Five Napa County fires burn 32,000 acres, displace at least 5,700 people
Whipped by dry winds, five major fires tore through the rugged canyons of eastern Napa County on Tuesday, displacing at least 5,700 people and threatening hundreds of homes as they crept toward the city of Napa.
Together, the five fires ― the Hennessey, Gamble, 15-10, Spanish and Markley fires ― nearly tripled in size Tuesday, consuming 32,025 acres. None were close to being contained by day’s end.
At least 1,900 homes were evacuated, according to a Napa County representative, mostly in the hills between St. Helena and Lake Berryessa. Most of the roads in that area were closed to all but emergency vehicles. One structure and two outbuildings had been destroyed by nightfall.
The five fires — together with two in Sonoma County, the 13-4 and 11-16 fires — have been dubbed the LNU Lightning Complex by Cal Fire, a nod to their likely origin during a rare summer lightning storm that swept through the region on Sunday and Monday. Five hundred firefighters were battling the five blazes, but support from the air was thin because of the multiple fires ignited by lightning across the state, Cal Fire said.
In Napa County, most attention was focused on the Hennessey fire, which was much closer to the county’s population centers. During the day Tuesday, winds moved it southward toward Atlas Peak, an area that burned badly in 2017 during the Atlas fire, which killed six people and destroyed 781 structures.
Residents on the upper portion of Atlas Peak Road, which climbs into the hills just east of the city of Napa, received a mandatory evacuation notice at 2:20 p.m. Tuesday. They joined those living in more isolated rural communities like Berryessa Estates, Butts Canyon and Spanish Valley. Later, the development of Circle Oaks would join them.
The evacuation orders were still coming a little before 8 p.m., when the county ordered residents to leave parts of Wragg Canyon Road and Chiles Pope Valley Road.
High on Atlas Peak Road, Robin Sisemore was hosing down the vegetation in front of her mother’s house late Tuesday afternoon. Sisemore lives on a shared property across the road.
“We can’t have this happen again,” said Sisemore’s daughter, Bridget Enge, who was standing next to her.
Both houses are brand new. They replaced homes that burned in the Atlas fire in 2017. Sisemore and her husband, who was watering their property at the time, have yet to move in. Sisemore’s mother, who is 95, is scheduled to get her final home inspection Friday. Now that might be delayed by the mandatory evacuations.
Sisemore said she heard about the thunder and lightning rolling through the North Bay when it was forecast a few days ago, but didn’t believe it could be this destructive.
“I think my husband had PTSD from the last time, to be honest,” Sisemore said. “He kind of panicked when he saw the smoke and started getting alerts.”
Her mother was safely down the hill by then. Sisemore said the rest of them had no plans to risk their lives for these houses. How long would she stay up there Tuesday night? “As long as they’ll let us,” Sisemore said.
Napa County was directing evacuees to Crosswalk Community Church in Napa, but few gathered there ― perhaps an indication of the fear surrounding close contact during a period of high coronavirus rates in the county.
Only two people spent the night at the church Monday night, despite evacuation orders covering 205 homes at the time, said Janet Upton, the Napa County public information officer.
“We have been preparing for some time for what we call ‘an incident within an incident,’” Upton said, referring to an outbreak of fires during the pandemic. “We know, as does Sonoma County, the wildfire capacity in this region. That doesn’t make the incident any less dynamic. But we are prepared to act on Plans A, B and C.”
Upton said the county has reduced capacity at Crosswalk to 60, a fraction of what it housed during the 2017 Atlas fire, because of the current need for social distancing. By early Tuesday evening, 10 families had taken up residence there.
As worry mounted over the unpredictable fires, a pair of overlapping power outages struck the county a little after 5 p.m. Combined, they extended over most of the city of Napa and north through the valley to Yountville and St. Helena, northeast and upward past Angwin and into the ranchland of Pope Valley and beyond.
The outages cut electricity to nearly 22,500 homes, according to PG&E. The cause is officially unknown, but none of the outages were planned.
A rare piece of good news came in the early afternoon, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that Napa County would receive a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for the ongoing efforts. The grant will allow local, state and tribal agencies responding to the fires to apply for 75% reimbursement of their eligible fire suppression costs.
You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.