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Napa County fire survivors balance risk, desire to return to Atlas Peak

Special Coverage

For more stories on the anniversary of the October firestorm, go

here.

_____

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County's four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley, go

here.

On a warm September afternoon, Karla Bailey ascends the steep driveway on her Atlas Peak property in a Jeep Liberty, stopping at a trailer where her dog, Gunner, greets her.

Bailey, 77, has been living in the trailer on the mountain northeast of Napa while rebuilding is underway on the house she and her husband lost in the Atlas fire, the largest of the October 2017 firestorms that ravaged Wine Country.

When finished, the two-story, 2,100-square-foot house will afford stunning views through floor-to-ceiling picture windows, including on clear days Mount Tamalpais, the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco some 50 miles away.

Larry Bailey won’t see it. In January, he succumbed to a long fight with Alzheimer’s disease, leaving his wife of 49 years to face loss and the challenge of rebuilding on her own. It hasn’t been easy. The retired physical education teacher was recently diagnosed with a heart condition she suspects is related to the stress.

“This has just rocked me,” she said.

She’s not alone. Across the fire-ravaged mountain in southeast Napa County, residents occupy an uncertain reality in temporary trailers dotting the scarred landscape. They compete for scarce labor, battle insurance companies to recoup financial losses, tussle with county officials over permits and struggle with their own impatient need to feel settled again.

Several Atlas Peak residents are rebuilding for the second time, after losing their homes in a 1981 daytime blaze that roared across similar territory. Their reasons for rebuilding again vary, but in essence are rooted in the human need for connection to a place that feels familiar.

“We’re at peace here,” said an Atlas Peak homeowner while standing on the deck of the home she and her husband are rebuilding for a second time.

But that peace feels fragile, and the woman - who asked that she and her husband not be identified because she did not want to draw attention to the couple’s situation - acknowledged unease whenever she smells smoke.

The 2017 Atlas fire was a monstrous beast, burning nearly 52,000 acres, destroying 783 structures and killing six people. Authorities pinned the ignition source on a power line that was struck twice, once by a large tree limb and again when an entire tree fell onto it.

Karla Bailey was awakened the night of Oct. 8, 2017, by a phone call from a friend who lives down in the valley. He told her to get out immediately. The friend is a general contractor who is now overseeing reconstruction of Bailey’s home.

The process has been a long and difficult one, as it has for fire victims across Wine Country. Bailey said she fears she may go bankrupt without access to more of her insurance money to complete work on the home.

Other residents expressed similar worries.

“If we knew then what we were going to go through with the county and our lenders, we never would have tried this,” Mike Collins, a semi-retired Napa County sheriff’s deputy, said while relaxing in a 38-foot trailer on his Atlas Peak property.

Collins, 56, and his wife, Karen, paid $1.2 million in 2017 for their 11-acre homestead, which included a house, garage apartment and pool. The couple and other family members moved onto the property in June. Four months later, the Atlas fire leveled nearly everything.

The couple now live in the trailer, maneuvering around the tight space while a construction crew works on building their new home. In the meantime, they continue to pay $4,600 a month for a mortgage on a home that does not exist and battle their lender for more of the insurance payout.

Collins said the lender refuses to release the full amount of insurance monies until construction of their new home is at least 50 percent completed. Determining that threshold is an ongoing matter of dispute. Without that money, the couple is considering dipping into their savings to pay what is owed.

Mike Collins said the lender “basically expects you to build half of your house out of your own pocket,” which, given Napa County’s high construction costs, can add up quickly.

Collins also expressed anger toward county officials for requiring the couple to spend thousands of dollars on permits and reports he believes are unnecessary or redundant. As an example, he cited a soil engineering report that cost $20,000.

Collins said he feels the county is “updating their records at our expense.”

To be fair, not all Atlas Peak residents feel this way. The couple who asked not to be identified said they have been treated fairly by the county.

Over coffee in downtown Napa, county Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza, whose district includes Atlas Peak, expressed empathy with residents who lost homes. Pedroza and his family were forced to evacuate their Silverado Springs home inside the venerable Silverado Country Club resort area when the fire broke out. The home survived the blaze.

Special Coverage

For more stories on the anniversary of the October firestorm, go

here.

_____

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County's four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley, go

here.

The Atlas fire destroyed 481 residences in Pedroza’s district, representing 75 percent of Napa County’s total loss from the 2017 blazes.

“It’s hard,” Pedroza said. “It’s your community. You see a house (that has burned down) and it’s someone you know.”

About 22,000 people reside in the 4th Supervisorial District, which spans north Napa, Silverado Country Club and east to Lake Berryessa. The area includes urban and rural neighborhoods, which Pedroza said has complicated the rebuilding process.

The 32-year-old supervisor lauded county staff for providing “really good” customer service to fire victims, and he defended the county requiring new permits and reports before people are allowed to move back in.

“We need to make sure it’s a safe investment,” Pedroza said.

To date, 165 people out of the 209 who have applied for building permits in the Atlas fire zone have been granted one by the county. An additional 28 people have been granted final permits, according to Pedroza.

Napa County has enacted more stringent regulations requiring residents in unincorporated areas to clear 100 feet of defensible space away from a structure, regardless of where the property line is. County supervisors also authorized adding another firefighter to the station serving the Atlas Peak area, expanded free wood-chipping services and dedicated a code enforcement officer specifically for new fire regulations.

Those changes, coupled by the fact that a large amount of fire fuels burned in the 2017 blaze, might lend the impression the area is no longer at high risk for catastrophic fire. But Napa County Fire Chief Geoff Belyea was not willing to go that far.

“You can’t paint it with a broad brush,” he said. “I can say the fuels are not as heavy.”

Nearly two years after the blaze, there remains only one way in and out of Atlas Peak - a treacherous, two-lane road that many days is clogged with construction traffic. Cellphone coverage has improved, according to some residents. But in an emergency, residents still must consider the real possibility of having to go it alone.

“The overarching message is don’t wait for the fire department or sheriff to tell you to evacuate,” Belyea said. “If you’re in a situation where you’re unsafe, it’s best to leave early.”

Despite the risks, Karla Bailey said she’s never thought once about moving away. It’s home.

“It just feels like this is where I belong,” she said while standing on the porch of her unfinished home, gazing out over acres and acres of fire-scarred land. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

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