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.