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Good news, grave concern overlap as Hennessey fire continues to menace Napa County

The Hennessey fire and its much smaller accomplice to the north, the Aetna fire, continued to spread terror and destruction throughout Napa and Lake counties Thursday. But the population centers of Napa Valley experienced moments of relief, even as the Adventist Health St. Helena hospital evacuated 51 patients in a convoy of ambulances.

By Thursday morning, six separate fires in eastern Napa County had merged into one massive inferno ― now known by the name of the biggest blaze, the Hennessey, which had grown to 192,000 acres by nightfall, with no containment. It was by far the largest and most destructive fire burning across a five-county region.

On Thursday night, Cal Fire officials announced that three people were found burned to death inside a home in Napa County, though no other details were immediately available, the Associated Press reported.

Cal Fire and the state and local units in its service had successfully beaten back the fire in Vacaville after it tore through there Wednesday on an astonishing southward run out of the mountains to the dry grassland surounding Interstate 80. But the conflagration continued to spread in remote parts of Napa County, where it had largely encircled Lake Berryessa.

Cal Fire was so overwhelmed by the dozens of fires blazing across the state that Operations Chief Charlie Blankenheim acknowledged northern and southern arms of the Hennessey fire would likely link up, unimpeded, on the east side of the lake.

“Blue Ridge will burn again,” Blankenheim said.

The Hennessey fire also had licked the top of Atlas Peak, perilously close to the city of Napa, on Wednesday. As of Thursday morning, it had not burned any houses atop Atlas Peak Road, according to Cal Fire representative Jeremy Rahn.

A Napa County representative said the number of evacuees processed at Crosswalk Community Church in the city of Napa had grown from 120 to 148 by mid-afternoon. Most of them were staying at the church, which has about 60 spots available for families or individuals (and space for RVs in the parking lot). Some, with the support of the American Red Cross, were put up at local hotel rooms, the representative said.

There were other refugees. She said the afternoon count via the Napa County Animal Shelter included 38 displaced dogs, 33 cats, 10 chickens, four pigs, four goats, three geese, three other birds, two donkeys, two llamas, one rabbit and a total of 173 horses and cows. Larger animals sheltered at the Napa Valley Expo, which suspended its latest function, coronavirus testing, for the day.

A rare moment of victory came in the afternoon, after yet another fire adding to the concern of residents here. Sometime around 1:30 p.m., a new burn sparked on Walnut Drive, in the hills west of Oakville and Rutherford, behind the famed Robert Mondavi Winery.

The Mondavi fire, as the local crews dubbed the blaze, spread to at least 5 acres and threatened several structures. Napa County issued an evacuation advisory for portions of several short lanes that run from the valley to the wooded area. But crews contained the fire quickly, and the advisory was canceled.

This scare, unlike the fires of the LNU complex, was not caused by one of the nearly 11,000 lightning strikes that set California ablaze Sunday and Monday, though Napa County officials did not immediately identify a source.

The evacuation at the hospital in Deer Park, a blip of a community about halfway up Howell Mountain — on Napa Valley’s eastern border — also proceeded smoothly, according to Adventist Health St. Helena representative Linda Williams.

“We had plenty of time, plenty of notice,” Williams said. “It was very calm and very organized. There was no panic.”

Deer Park and Angwin, at the crest of the mountain, both had received mandatory evacuation notices Wednesday night. Cal Fire officials acknowledged the move was largely precautionary. Chief Sean Kavanaugh said Thursday morning that the Hennessey fire was roughly 5 miles from Angwin at its closest, and generally moving away, to the east.

“But there is one road in, one road out,” Kavanaugh said. “It’s a tough area up there.”

Asked whether the level of risk warranted a major disruption in patient care, Williams said, “We feel it was appropriate. Of course, we are going by the guidance of Cal Fire. Like the old saying, better safe than sorry.”

Late Wednesday night, 20 ambulances had lined up in front of the hospital to transport patients to a variety of other facilities in the region. Some of the ailing were reassigned within the same medical group, going to Adventist Health Ukiah Valley or Adventist Health Lodi Memorial. But many went to Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, run by St. Joseph Health; it was the nearest landing spot, 21 miles away.

The ambulances worked in rotations to move all of the patients. St. Helena Hospital, as locals still know it, also was able to use a REACH helicopter to transport those with dire needs. Patients in the hospital’s mental health unit went by van to Adventist Health’s mental health facility in Vallejo.

Williams said all arrived safely, without incident.

She also noted that several of the hospital’s associates — meaning doctors, nurses and technicians as well as support staff — have been personally displaced by the raging fires, and that a few have lost their homes.

Thursday night, Dr. Kelli Chase was hoping she wasn’t one of them.

Chase, a pathologist at the hospital, visited the quiet, nearly empty facility Thursday to assist in shutting down lab equipment and storing tissue specimens during the evacuation. She said the specimens of current patients had already been transferred to Ukiah “as though they were whole patients.”

Chase said that effort was seamless. Her personal life is not. She lives in Middletown, in Lake County, a town ravaged by the Valley fire in 2015 and menaced Thursday by another fire burning in its footprint. “We’re really like the only place up there not evacuated,” she said early Thursday afternoon. Her mandatory evacuation came about an hour later.

Chase has a clear picture of the dangers. Her husband is a firefighter. He is currently injured and not supposed to be working at all. But his department issued an emergency staffing order that allowed him to support active fire teams. Wednesday he delivered colleagues to their units and drove a water tender. Thursday he was fixing an ice maker, no small act as temperatures again rose into the 90s in most of the LNU fire zone.

“They’re so strapped,” Chase said. “They have no resources. Some fires they’re not even fighting right now.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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