Napa County fires merge, swell to 107,000 acres as Hennessey fire beats destructive path to Vacaville
Napa County residents felt varying degrees of angst, relief, panic and survivor’s guilt Wednesday as they tracked a half-dozen uncontained wildfires burning across the county.
By the end of the day, the fires had nearly tripled in size again and incinerated 107,700 acres, primarily in Napa County, while moving south into the western edges of Vacaville. Flames destroyed at least 50 structures there, mainly in the hills west of Vacaville, and jumped Interstate 80, briefly shutting down a main artery connecting the Bay Area to the Central Valley and the Sierra.
The largest of the Napa County fires was the Hennessey, which exploded to 100,000 acres Wednesday as it merged with three other blazes — the Gamble, Green and Markley fires — burning in the rugged eastern hills of the county. The Spanish fire, near Spanish Flat, grew to 4,100 acres and the Morgan fire, which moved into neighboring Lake County, grew to 3,500 acres.
Authorities ordered at least 13,000 Napa County residents, from 4,418 homes, to pack up their belongings and leave areas threatened by fire. As night approached, it issued mandatory evacuations for Angwin and Deer Park, including St. Helena Hospital, along the ridge dividing Napa and Pope valleys. Another 3,700 residents from 1,240 homes had received warnings to prepare to evacuate if conditions worsened, the county said Wednesday evening.
“It’s been a very interesting year so far,” said Napa County Undersheriff Jon Crawford. “This is never a good thing. I wouldn’t want to minimize anyone’s experiences from previous fires. They’re all individual tragedies. It’s not good.”
Crosswalk Community Church, Napa County’s designated evacuation center, housed 66 people Wednesday, the county said. Five slept in RVs in the parking lot Tuesday night.
Virtually everyone in the county had visual reminders of the destruction around them as great billowing clouds of white smoke stacked high in the skies. From most towns in Napa Valley, multiple plumes were visible at a time. The air had been surprisingly clear in the valley, with most of the smoke blowing east. But that began to change Wednesday as a low layer of haze settled upon the southern end of the premier grape-growing region.
All of the fires — part of the larger group of wildland blazes in the North Bay dubbed the LNU Lightning Complex — are believed to have been caused by a rare summer lightning storm that swept through the Bay Area on Sunday and Monday. The lightning strikes caused approximately 60 fires in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Solano and Yolo counties, Cal Fire Unit Chief Shanna Jones said Wednesday during a press conference at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga, a central staging area for strike teams.
In Napa County, the most ominous of the fires was the Hennessey, sparked by a lightning strike just to the east of the reservoir of that name. It had prompted Napa County’s earliest evacuation orders Monday. By about 1 a.m. Wednesday, county residents were receiving notice that the Hennessey fire was moving toward Atlas Peak, Soda Canyon and the area above Silverado Country Club — the edges of Napa, by far the largest city in the county.
Within the first few hours of daylight, though, Cal Fire’s focus had shifted again. The hills northeast of Napa were still under threat as the fire reached the summit of Atlas Peak. But the situation had become much more perilous for Vacaville and Fairfield, where winds drove the Hennessey fire southeast toward the I-80 freeway.
In Napa County, Julia Crane was getting all too used to the disruption. Crane, an artist and environmental activist, lives on a rural property near Lake Hennessey. As far as she can deduce, the Hennessey fire began one ridge away, just across Highway 128.
“If it had skipped the road and gotten on our hill, it would have taken like 20 minutes to reach us,” Crane said.
Instead, the fire moved east. But the power went out on Crane’s property, leaving her to swelter in a small house with no Wi-Fi access. She relocated to Angwin, atop Howell Mountain, where she co-owns a cabin with her ex-husband. Early Wednesday morning, they learned the county had ordered a mandatory evacuation to a boundary about 4 miles from them. By Wednesday night, they were ordered to leave Angwin. The Hennessey fire had followed her.
Crane, who grew up in Napa Valley and at age 5 had to flee the Hanly fire — a conflagration that presaged the deadly 2017 Tubbs fire with its Calistoga-to-Santa Rosa route — was weighing her next move Wednesday night.
“My sister lives in Santa Rosa,” she said. “I may go there. It’s hard to be so far from home, but what am I going to do anyway if the fire comes?”
The Napa County Sheriff’s Department has been leading evacuation efforts, going driveway by driveway to check on residents and assisting those with special needs. Crawford believes the level of compliance has improved since 2017, when the Atlas fire killed six people and destroyed 781 structures in the county.
“You can definitely see people, unfortunately, becoming more experienced in this,” he said. “However, you do have people who refuse to leave when you ask them to. Then fire conditions change, and they might be in a situation where now they are feeling threatened, and they really are threatened. Now we have to assume much greater risk to get them out.”
Within the entire LNU Lightning Complex, fires had destroyed 105 homes and damaged 70 more by Wednesday evening. The fires threatened 25,000 structures in three counties.
Cal Fire spokesman Jeremy Rahn acknowledged the agency’s personnel and equipment are severely overtaxed right now, with a confirmed total of 10,849 lightning strikes having sparked 367 new fires statewide over the past three days. It wasn’t getting any easier Wednesday, with high temperatures in the range of 94-102 degrees throughout the region and humidity levels as low as 7% east of Lake Berryessa.
“As we look at today’s fire weather, not only in this region but throughout the north of California, it’s a tough day today,” Cal Fire Chief Sean Kavanaugh said. “Hot dry winds may occur this afternoon that may hamper some of our control efforts. We are sharing resources up and down the state. … Resources are stretched thin.”
As are nerves.
You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.