Empty Calistoga braces as Tubbs fire expands in Napa County

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


CALISTOGA – Twenty-four hours after Cal Fire issued a mandatory evacuation of this town of 5,200 at the upper corner of Napa Valley, the scene might have been lifted from a post-apocalyptic novel. The only sounds to be heard Thursday afternoon were the rumblings of police motorcycles and caravans of firetrucks, the streets otherwise empty under a hazy sky.

North of city limits, the hills were in flames.

Sunday night, the Tubbs fire started just outside of town here and swept west at a terrifying speed, roaring all the way to Santa Rosa — a distance of 10 miles in under 6 hours — consuming entire neighborhoods in its path. After a change in the winds, the remnants of that blaze started to burn east, reaching the flank of Mount St. Helena.

From Knights Valley, just over the hill from Calistoga on Highway 128, billowing smoke was visible from the lower elevations of the mountain’s west buttress.

And Thursday morning, the fire jumped Highway 29 on the southern side of the peak, somewhere between the crest of the highway at Robert Louis Stevenson State Park and the intersection of 29 and Old Lawley Toll Road. Then, according to Franz Valley volunteer fireman and nearly lifelong resident Bud Pochini, the wind shifted and the fire doubled back just as it reached the scenic Palisades that help make Calistoga so picturesque.

Pochini had scarcely stopped working since Sunday night, though his own house in Knights Valley, and his sister’s next door, were among the casualties.

The battle against the fire was being fought in extremely steep and rugged terrain amid erratic winds, said Lake County Cal Fire division chief Greg Bertelli.

So far, no structures have burned within city limits.

“Right now, the object is to kick the crap out of the fire and keep the people safe,” said Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning.

The Napa County Fairgrounds served as staging grounds for a massive firefighting operation that included dozens of fire engines, EMT and law enforcement vehicles from all over the state to help manage traffic.

Calistoga was the only town in Wine Country subject to complete evacuation, and its normally bustling downtown, with 19th-century stone buildings and western facades, was deserted Thursday. Most of the storefronts were dark, though a few pieces of neon remained lit. The electronic sign at the Smoke Shop liquor store still displayed current payouts for the various state lottery scratchers. A newspaper rack offered Tuesday editions of several papers.

The townspeople hadn’t had much time to pack up Wednesday when ordered out. Only a couple of downtown business even had notes on their doors. Soo Yuan, a Chinese restaurant, informed customers with a sign that read, “We are sorry to say, but due to recent events our restaurant will be closed for the day.” The Calistoga Roastery, a popular coffeehouse, couldn’t staff its counters, adding in a sign: “However, we will be open when we can and are optimistic that we will be back to business as usual before the end of the week.”

That now seems impossible.

Around town, Calistoga’s residential streets were all but dormant. A few houses had sprinklers running continuously; at a couple of them, occupants had placed the sprinklers atop the roofs.

On Oak Street, just a couple of blocks from the fairgrounds, a Napa Community Animal Response Team truck was pulled to the curb in front of a home. Napa CART specializes in rescuing horses. But the three women making up this team hadn’t heard of any horses that needed saving in the area, so they turned their attention to family pets. They found two dogs abandoned at a property on Franz Valley School Road, just outside of town, and someone had asked them to pick up their cat here.

They couldn’t catch the cat so the women left food and water, and headed out.

Though Calistoga was eerily quiet, it was not empty — much to Mayor Canning’s chagrin. He had made several public pleas to his constituents to get out, and personal ones, too.

“I’ve made contact with a few of them,” Canning said. “When I make the contact, I’m your last and final, and we’re very clear that no resource will be expended for your life and safety. It’s irresponsible at this point, in my opinion, to be here. You’re a distraction. But at the end of the day, we can’t legally prevent them from staying.”

Canning estimated 40 people stuck around Wednesday night, but guessed there were “fewer than a dozen” Calistogans left by Thursday afternoon.

The Hayman family and their dinner guest, Alex Sysock, begged to differ. As they ate plates of pasta — Richard Hayman made a sauce from tomatoes harvested among neighbors that day — they counted at least 11 people they personally knew who were still in town, most of them within a couple blocks of their home on Cedar Street. They figured the overall number must be substantially higher.

That included Matthew Gamble, who had been out riding his bicycle just 15 minutes earlier, his driver’s license duct-taped to his shirt because, he said, Oakland police officers had forced him at gunpoint to lie on the ground the night before. Gamble had hung a white sheet over his garage declaring his occupancy, hoping to avoid more misunderstandings.

For Sysock, 28, and the Haymans, the decision to stay was stubborn, perhaps, but not necessarily anti-authoritarian. They just weren’t that worried about the situation, at least not at the moment.

“I just feel that we collectively have more accurate intelligence than anybody else,” said Marshall Hayman, 26, the oldest son of Richard and Lisa.

Marshall Hayman was living in a rental property just outside of Calistoga, in the direction of Knights Valley, before the Tubbs fire ripped through the area and incinerated the house. He got out just before the flames got in.

Sysock said he has a degree in urban planning from San Francisco State, and he had noted a natural fire buffer between his parents’ house and the direction of the fire, which remained several miles from town as day turned to night. His mother had left town Tuesday, his father Wednesday, but Alex said he wasn’t budging unless embers were raining on the family house, also on Cedar.

Hayman felt the same way. “Until I see houses burning, I’m not leaving,” he said.

Sysock said he had probably been advised to leave 15 times since Wednesday. Why hadn’t they accepted Canning’s advice?

“He has to say that,” Hayman said. “He’s the mayor.”

Nevertheless, Sysock and the Haymans did have cars and trucks packed with belongings, just in case. In the meantime, their nerves were balanced by the strange calm that had come over the threatened town.

“Honestly?” Hayman said. “It’s been really awesome not having anyone in town.”

Show Comment

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine