Valley fire evacuees tell of brushes with raging blaze

CALISTOGA - Shock and sorrow were met with countless acts of generosity and kindness this weekend at the Napa County Fairgrounds, where evacuees flocked for refuge from a disaster many described in apocalyptic terms.

Throughout the day at the evacuation center, Lake County residents from various communities devastated by the massive Valley fire sought food, clothes, pet food, toiletries, a cot to rest on or a shady spot to pitch a tent.

But what they wanted most were answers to questions for which there were no immediate answers: Was this or that street spared, could they go back to get their horses or other farm animals, when could they go back to their homes?

They cried and consoled each other. Some walked around the fairgrounds dumbfounded, recalling how they fled under the terrifying pressure of approaching flames.

“It wasn’t even a fire. It was like fluorescent evil,” said Whispering Pines resident Bill Gavin, 65. “I saw sections like football fields go up in four seconds.”

Gavin said he was able to save his neighbor’s dogs before leaving his home for Middletown on Saturday afternoon. He estimated the fire was traveling 35 miles an hour because it got to Middletown before he did.

“There were flames on the road,” he said. “That’s the closest I ever got to death, and it was scary.”

Like hundreds of other evacuees, Gavin wondered whether his home had been spared.

On Sunday morning, Sharon Woita, who lives on Santa Barbara Avenue in Middletown, sat in a multipurpose room of the Calistoga fairgrounds, next to the kitchen where food was being served to evacuees.

Woita said she was at the Store 24 gas station and market, where she works as a cashier, when she first noticed the fire as a column of smoke in the direction of Cobb Mountain. She said a short time later the fire had spread across a ridge some 3 miles wide.

Woita said she raced to her home to save what she could. Someone helped her push her 1966 Mustang into a field next to her home, hoping it would not be destroyed. She then tried to save her trailer camper but couldn’t get it hitched because it required battery power to lift.

She loaded up some personal belongings, a parade saddle that belonged to Gene Autry - prized by her father - her pets, life jackets and jet ski.

“I heard my house is gone; we heard Dad’s house is gone, burned down,” said Woita, sobbing as she described how the fire and wind conspired to form a violent, twisting storm.

By early Sunday afternoon, Woita had helped set up a small tent community of family and friends in a grassy field at the fairgrounds. Gradually, the field filled up with tents, camper trailers, cars and trucks.

Evacuees sat in lawn chairs and cots in a scene that looked like a campground but lacked any of the joy and laughter. Many of the evacuees, however, were heartened by the outpouring of donations of food, clothing, toiletries and other necessities.

For most of the morning and early afternoon, an endless caravan of trucks and cars came into the fairgrounds carrying supplies such as new and used clothes, blankets, pillows, food, bottled water, dog and cat food, pet carriers and tents.

By evening, the evacuation center stopped accepting donations at the site. One Red Cross volunteer said the needs had changed.

“We pretty much have the logistics to get these folks through the next few days,” Ron Reynolds said. “What we really need now is money to help these people get apartments and first and last month’s rents and security deposits.”

Third District Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said the support from Calistoga and other Napa County residents was inspirational, but she wondered how long the fairgrounds could sustain so many people.

“This place is not equipped or designed to have 500 people here taking showers and using the toilet facilities,” she said, adding that the site was safe. “There’s more good here than anything else in terms of people helping people.”

Nora Hiller of Jameson Animal Rescue in St. Helena said she and others from her organization collected pet food all morning, but switched to other items for evacuees when it became clear that enough pet food had been collected at the fairgrounds.

“The most important thing I do is help people and listen,” Hiller said. “I tell people, ‘I can’t tell you it’s going to ever be right, but I can tell you it’s going to be better and we care.’ ”

Evacuees at the center told stories of close brushes with the fast-moving fire.

“In the past, we’ve talked about it several times - what the conditions would require for an evacuation, and all those conditions were met,” said Fletcher Thornton, 76, who lives on Middletown’s outskirts, speaking about his and his wife’s decision to escape.

Thornton said he took a nap at about noon Saturday and woke up at about 1:30 p.m. to see smoke coming from the direction of Boggs Mountain to the west. He said he and his wife got in their truck to get a little closer to see what was happening. Once they realized how fast the fire was moving, they headed back to their home at Diamond D Ranch.

They got their three horses into a trailer, along with their three dogs and two cats, and left. Thornton said that at one point he and his wife drove out to a green, well-watered 58-acre alfalfa field, thinking they could ride out the fire.

But he said the smoke soon got too thick and houses were burning all around them and propane tanks were exploding, so they fled the area like everyone else.

At the section of the evacuation center where clothes were being distributed, Luz Maria Fonseca Linares solemnly waited for news about her trailer home on Highway 175 in Middletown. Fonseca said that when the fire broke out, she was driving her son to his football game in Fort Bragg. She said she saw Cobb Mountain burning. She spent the night in Fort Bragg and arrived at the evacuation center in Calistoga on Sunday morning.

“It’s only material things, but it’s still sad,” she said. “We’ve been there 12 years.”

Her husband, Jorge Fonseca, said the family hopes to stay in one of two homes owned by a former boss in St. Helena.

“I’m sad. I lost everything,” he said. “I didn’t take anything from my home.”

At a Sunday night press briefing to discuss the latest information about the fire, evacuees peppered Cal Fire Division Chief Todd Derum with questions about their homes, streets and neighborhoods, wondering if their communities had been destroyed or spared.

Derum apologized for having few answers.

When asked how long it would be before residents could return to see if their homes were still standing, Derum estimated, “Two days.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

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