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Barber: Local motorcycle racer Jayson Uribe now on fire front lines

Calls in the middle of the night rarely deliver good news, and this one certainly didn’t. Jayson Uribe was in San Jose when he answered his cell phone. It was dispatch at the volunteer fire station in Deer Park, telling him that a large fire had begun to spread in the rural community on the lower flank of Howell Mountain, just east of St. Helena.

“My station called me at 3:15 a.m.,” Uribe said. “They’re like, ‘We need you back right now.’ I hopped in my work truck and boogied back to Napa County, got in the engine and went out. It was a bit rough. Nobody really expected this to be so aggressive.”

A lot of the logistics that surround fighting fires are hard to navigate. Driving home with a combination of speed, urgency and safety? That was not a problem for Uribe. He’s a seasoned motorcycle racer who has ridden at the highest levels of the sport, often at Sonoma Raceway, which is more or less his home turf. Over the past couple years, Uribe has begun to swap one fulfilling, hair-raising pursuit for another.

If Uribe is relatively new to firefighting, riding motorcycles is all but reflexive at this point. He first got on a dirt bike when he was 2 or 3, and was racing Supermoto road courses by 7.

Uribe grew up in Angwin, the small town at the top of Howell Mountain. His father, Allan, ran an electrical repair business, Rock and Sons. In fact, he still does, and Jayson works for him. The Uribes had a neighbor who rode motorcycles professionally.

“I went to watch him do a little practice day, and ever since then I was hooked,” Jayson said.

As it turned out, the boy was good. Like, really good. Uribe achieved at every level, often against older kids, and often at Sears Point. “The big track, I wasn’t allowed to go onto until I was 16,” he said. “But I’ve done thousands of laps at the kart track.”

Uribe’s first big break came when he was 12. He and a friend went to a large racing tryout called the Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup. For amateur riders, it’s a major pipeline to professional racing. The friend did well enough to draw interest from a race team. Uribe didn’t. But a few weeks after that, he bested that same friend in a race.

“Literally the next day I got a phone call asking me drive,” he said.

Just one problem: That race team was in England. Some of the European circuits allowed kids to ride professionally at 12. At that time, the minimum age in the U.S. was 16. So he and his mother, Rebecca, moved to England for parts of the next several years. They’d spend about half the calendar ― their American passports limited them to 180 days a year in the United Kingdom, in 90-day increments ― based in Nottingham.

Much of Uribe’s young life, in fact, has been constructed around motorcycle competition. A traditional high school schedule wasn’t conducive to racing, so he home-schooled. He tore through classwork as if accelerating out of a turn, and graduated at 15.

Uribe stayed in Europe. He got sponsors, scored his first international win (and a track record in his class) at Circuit de Ledenon, joined a Spanish team, finished 11th overall in the FIM CEV Moto2 European Championship in both 2016 and 2017, then returned home to race in the U.S., in the MotoAmerica Superbike Championship.

Uribe also started work as a part-time instructor in the advanced racing school at Sonoma Raceway ― in an actual car, with four tires on the ground ― and as a correspondent for the Bonnier Motorcycle Group, and as a consultant with Google on the company’s autonomous vehicle program, and of course as an electrician.

That’s a lot to juggle. But Uribe had one more itch he hadn’t been able to scratch. He was always interested in firefighting.

“I’ve always found a reason to not do it,” Uribe said. “Either I was gone, or I was in school or whatever it was. Then 2017, the Tubbs fire hit and that was kind of my motivation to say, ‘OK, let’s actually do this.’”

During the deadly Tubbs and Atlas conflagrations, Rock and Sons turned its attention from electricity to water, helping to supply fire teams. Uribe got a closer look at the firefighters’ commitment and spirit of teamwork, and wanted a part of it. So he went through the Napa County Fire Department’s six-month academy, graduated in June 2019 and has been working with volunteer-staffed Station 21 in Deer Park.

The crew might have gotten more than it bargained for this summer, as the LNU Lightning Complex burned a massive area of the North Bay starting in mid-August, only to be followed in short order by the Glass fire.

The latter hit close to home for Station 21. Cal Fire believes the Glass fire started off of Crystal Springs Road at the base of Howell Mountain, and spread in multiple directions from there. It laid waste to residential areas, leapt across Napa Valley and destroyed landmark winery and resort buildings.

When Uribe returned from San Jose early the morning of Sept. 28, he joined colleagues in the fight to save Rombauer Vineyards. The winery is perched atop a picturesque hill off Silverado Trail, on the east side of Napa Valley. If you look at the hill now, it’s almost completely blackened. Rombauer’s tasting room and storage facilities are somehow undamaged.

Well, “somehow” isn’t quite right. They are undamaged because of the firefighters dispatched to the scene.

“It was a real battle,” said Christopher Thompson, a Station 21 member who is in his 50s but, like Uribe, a relative newcomer to the job. “That forest that surrounds that area, when it torched off, it sounded like a 747 taking off. They tell you it sounds like a freight train when an area goes up. I’m here to tell you it sounds like a 747.”

While working along Silverado Trail, Station 21 learned the wind had shifted and that the Glass fire had begun to move up Bell Canyon toward Deer Park, the site of St. Helena Hospital. The company raced back up the hill and, along with two other trucks from volunteer departments, engaged in a battle to protect the evacuated hospital, which is the heart of the community there and one of only two medical centers in Napa County.

And it wasn’t just the hospital. NCFD Station 21 is located on the same property, and at some point fire began creeping down the hillside toward the station house. Uribe and Thompson broke away to keep that front at bay until help arrived, then returned to the hospital grounds.

“We saved the hospital. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a lot of stuff surrounding it, as far as the streets and the homes there,” Uribe said. “Nobody expected the winds to change the way they did. No one even knew there was fire where it was, until we turned around and it was pretty much at our backs. That was a long six hours of pure firefighting.”

Hours after that firefight, Uribe stood watching the remains of Foothills Adventist Elementary School, his old grade school, as it smoldered. Thompson said several of his neighbors’ houses burned down. Everyone at Station 21 is local, and it has devastated them to see the destruction around them, as hard as they worked to prevent it.

Uribe worked as hard as any of them.

“He has endless energy,” Thompson said. “As you can imagine, firefighting is grueling. It’s summertime, you’ve got triple-digit temperatures. Now you’re in a forest somewhere. There’s flames, embers flying. The ground is radiating heat when we’re doing mop-up. And you cannot tire him out. He goes and goes and goes.”

Oh, and one more thing.

“When he’s racing, I don’t know how fast he goes around the track,” Thompson added. “But my guess is it’s pretty hard to intimidate him. He doesn’t back down.”

This has been a rough year for sports, like everything else. Sonoma Raceway was shut down for months, and has reopened under limited conditions. Uribe took a hiatus from racing, but is at it again now. He flew to Florida on Wednesday for the Daytona 200, and next week will head to Monterey for an event at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. He’ll be at Sonoma Raceway to teach driving lessons on Halloween.

At this point, though, it seems like just a matter of time before Uribe is a career firefighter. He is already certified to work for a municipal fire department.

“I’ve thought about that a lot,” Uribe said. “Honestly, that’s where I want my career to go. I love my racing stuff. At the same time, racing isn’t gonna last forever.”

Unfortunately, wildfire season will.

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

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