Crews ‘getting a good handle on’ Old fire in Napa County as agencies step up planning for long fire season ahead

Fire crews are “getting a good handle” on Napa County’s Old fire, which could be seen as a successful dry run for what’s ahead.|

Todd Walker spent much of Tuesday night listening to hundreds of trees cracking in the wooded area around his house, which is at the shady corner of Soda Canyon Road and Loma Vista Drive, a little northeast of the city of Napa. The trees were being slowly roasted by the Old fire, which broke out Tuesday on a nearby ridge.

“This morning, I realized a lot of what I was hearing was fallen branches and old dead trees that needed to go anyway,” said Walker, who runs a trucking company based in American Canyon.

That was the good news. The bad news for Walker is that only five years after the house he owns with his wife, Tracy, was burned to the ground in the Atlas fire, the flames again crept close to their property.

More and more, California wildfires don’t abide by burn scars, seasons or even weather patterns, creating a hostile environment for anyone living near combustible wildland — or in neighborhoods in the path of wind-driven flames.

“There’s a hillside right by me that hasn’t been cleaned up yet, and the whole neighborhood is worried about that,” Walker said.

In some ways, the Old fire was a successful dry run. Firefighters strengthened their grip Wednesday on the 570-acre wildfire burning in steep terrain on the eastern slope of the Napa Valley.

Due to favorable weather, fire crews spent much of the day putting out hot spots and getting rid of debris along the fire line.

The Old fire, about 7 miles northeast of downtown Napa, was 30% contained by the end of the day and had not grown since Tuesday night, according to Cal Fire.

“It seems we’re getting a good handle on it,” said Erick Hernandez, a Cal Fire spokesperson.

About 100 homes were evacuated Tuesday, but all evacuation orders were lifted Wednesday morning and there were no longer any buildings in the path of the fire, officials said.

Other than a firefighter who was treated at an area hospital for a minor injury, there were no significant casualties.

Nevertheless, the Old fire feels ominous to many observers. The last day in May seems like a particularly early date for a fire of this size. It came on a day when temperatures reached the mid-80s in Napa, and the winds were moderate. And it ran through an area struck by a devastating fire just five years earlier.

For those reasons, local fire agencies are stepping up their planning.

Santa Rosa Fire Department’s preparations gained steam after the Coastal fire erupted in a rugged canyon in Orange County in Southern California and destroyed 20 homes in the Laguna Niguel area on May 11, said Paul Lowenthal, division chief fire marshal for the department.

“Our concern was that type of fire behavior is exactly what we’ll see more of this year,” Lowenthal said. “Typically, everybody is worried about north-wind events later in the season. But we’re looking at heavier fuels — meaning trees, trunks, etc. — that did not receive the amount of rain they should have.”

Yes, the April rains were beneficial, Lowenthal said. They greened up grasses on local slopes, prolonging the fire danger they will represent at some point in the coming weeks. But the rain wasn’t enough to moisten those drought-stricken heavy fuels.

Lowenthal foresees more events like Laguna Niguel, short-duration fires that nevertheless have the potential to destroy structures.

“I’m not trying to scare the community,” Lowenthal said. “But I want people to understand it’s not just the red flag warnings we’re worried about this year. We’re worried about the typical afternoon breeze. Those sundowners we’re accustomed to, where in late afternoon the winds increase. That’s the incident we’re training for.”

In Napa County, the outlook Wednesday was a major improvement over the previous day, when residents in the Soda Canyon area heard the familiar sound of sirens blaring.

Tuesday’s close call sent shock waves through the neighborhood.

“As soon as you see that fire engine and that smoke, it’s going to freak you out,” said Oscar Renteria, who lives on Soda Canyon Road.

In the wake of the Atlas and Glass fires, “any size fire is going to freak you out in this valley,” Renteria said. “I don’t think that’s ever going away.”

Renteria moved to the neighborhood from downtown Napa in 2020, when his family bought a home that was rebuilt after it burned in the Atlas fire.

Renteria said he “thought it would be a long time before it could burn again.”

But he has prepared for wildfires anyway, and so have many of his neighbors, he said. The most vigilant among them mow tall grasses in the spring, slash low-hanging limbs off trees and rip out the most flammable vegetation on their properties. Walker said he and some neighbors even pitched in and purchased a firetruck.

“It’s a very resilient group that takes fire safety very seriously,” said Napa County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza, whose district includes Soda Canyon.

That’s music to Lowenthal’s ears. His recommendations to Santa Rosa property owners have taken on a greater urgency, but the checklist hasn’t changed much. He still wants residents in the wildland-urban interface to consider heat-resistant roofing materials, clean rain gutters and, most of all, weed abatement.

“Last year, we probably burned more acreage in Santa Rosa — if you take away major fires like Tubbs, Nuns and Glass — than we’ve burned in decades,” Lowenthal said. “But there was no structural damage. That comes back to a lot of the proactive measures people have taken.”

Even those measures are tested in an event like the 51,624-acre Atlas fire, though. Winds tore through Napa’s canyons at more than 40 mph in 2017, killing seven people and destroying 444 homes. It was part of the North Bay firestorm that also include the Tubbs and Nuns fires.

Wind speeds have been light during the Old fire, which was burning Wednesday at a low intensity, Cal Fire’s Hernandez said.

While manzanita, oak and bay trees are scattered throughout the area, the fire was primarily burning grasses and not igniting the taller vegetation, according to Hernandez.

About two dozen deputies with the Napa County Sheriff’s Office converged Tuesday evening on Soda Canyon Road to evacuate residents, according to Sheriff Oscar Ortiz.

“It’s a dead-end road that goes all the way to the top of the mountain and ends,” Ortiz said. “It’s sparsely populated, lots of ranches, long driveways.”

See a map of where the Old fire is burning versus previous fires:

Access to Soda Canyon, Soda Springs and Old Soda Springs roads was restricted to residents only Wednesday because of firefighting equipment in the area, officials said.

Cal Fire officials had not determined what caused it by Wednesday.

Fire officials named the blaze the Old fire because it began off Old Soda Springs Road, which is on the east side of a ridge.

Firefighters on Tuesday were focused on the western side of the fire as it crept downhill toward Soda Canyon.

On Tuesday evening, 4-foot-high flames reached the road at a few spots near the intersection of Soda Canyon and Loma Vista. By 6 p.m., firefighters had kept it from jumping the pavement.

Several trucks were stationed at the historic Napa Soda Springs Resort, a 19th-century getaway that has been dormant for decades. Some of the stone structures had been hit with a splotchy coat of pink fire retardant. Hand crews worked on defending other parts of the resort, cutting lines around abandoned buildings.

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Pera at On Twitter @Matt__Pera.

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