Well, the fires are out, the first responders thanked and gone, and those of us who lost our homes coping as best we can to pick up and move on. It’s been over a month since my wife and I evacuated our home on Atlas Peak Road and I finally have some time to write about some observations regarding the emergency response in the first hour of the tragedy.

Somewhere about 10 PM on October 8 as we were readying for bed my wife smelled smoke. I went out to check and was appalled at the conflagration on the ridge of Atlas Peak. We started running about to pack up and leave. I called neighbors to alert them as they had an obscured view of the ridge while friends from across the valley were calling me to alert me to what they were seeing. I could not reach 911 during this time.

During a few minutes time the field on our neighboring vineyard property caught fire and pushed by the winds quickly raced up the hill. We left immediately and as we reached the bottom of our driveway found our mailbox in flames. There were several fire trucks sitting on the roadway but there had not been any sirens, horns, knocks on doors or loudspeakers alerting residents. As we turned south we encountered a tanker truck near William Hill Winery. I asked the fireman if they could spray down our house.

My question is what was the timeline for the first trucks to roll? What were their orders? I read later that their first goal was to save lives not property but it didn’t seem that they were alerting anyone. Our neighbors around the corner from us on Westgate died in their home from the fire. No Westgate/Silverado residents I’ve spoken to were alerted by the fire department: Self evacuation was the norm. We, like our neighbors, relied on ourselves as there was no one there.

The situation was similar on Soda Canyon Road and Mt. Veeder Road:

Our friend Cindy wrote, ”I can confirm that I received no alert or warning other than the phone call from a friend on Loma Vista at around 10pm. Without that phone call it is unlikely I would have been aware of the fire until it was at my door. None of the neighbors I have spoken to on Soda Canyon Rd. received any warning, other than from friends or neighbors, until a helicopter with a loud speaker flew over Foss Valley. By that time the lower section of Soda Canyon Rd. (from the top of the grade to Silverado Trail) was totally engulfed in flames and the evacuation from Foss Valley was impossible other than by helicopter.”

Again, no one from the top of Soda Canyon Rd. to Silverado Trail, including Loma Vista Rd. and Soda Springs Rd., received any official warning or evacuation notice. Two people died on Soda Springs Rd.

During the appeal hearing on Mountain Peak Vineyard before the BOS, County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said that there was an evacuation route from Foss Valley to Atlas Peak Rd., through private property and locked gates (you’d need bolt cutters). Needless to say there was no escape via Atlas Peak Rd. for anyone who was aware of or knew how to get to this “escape route.”

At 11 PM after arriving a friend’s home on the west side I called the Sheriff’s Department to ask why there were no Nixle alerts to let the public know what was going on. The person answering the phone said something to the effect that they would get to it.

When I served on the Napa County Grand Jury (2007-2008) we observed the public notification system (Reverse 911) while investigating the Napa County Office of Emergency Services. Is this system still in place? Was it used during the Atlas Fire?

Without timely warnings six lives were lost and residents had to evacuate in a panic leaving behind family treasures and important records. The latter is a big issue necessitating hours of effort to remedy.

And then finally we must all realize how lucky our entire community was that the fire was not on Saturday night around the time of the concert at Silverado Country Club as part of the PGA tournament. Following the concert exiting cars were backed up on Hardman all the way from Silverado Trail to Atlas Peak Road. While the PGA arranges for police presence to keep cars from entering Cottage Drive, there were no police expediting traffic onto Silverado Trail following the concert. For future events at Silverado there should be traffic control at Silverado Trail. Had the fire occurred at that time no one could have exited from the affected roadways. One also wonders about other large events on these dead end roads, events our Planning Commission and Board of Supervisor continue to permit regardless of residents’ warnings of the lack of safe egress in such emergencies.

Please leave your own stories in the comment section below.

16 Comments, RSS

  • Sharon Voges

    says on:
    December 4, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    We live in Monticello Park. We had no idea there was a fire anywhere near us until a friend in Alta Height called us around 10PM to ask us if we could see the fire. At that point I opened the door and smelled smoke and could see a huge red glow in the Northern sky. We started calling our neighbors to alert them. We self evacuated around 1:30AM on Sunday long before the sheriff came through here. I did not receive a Nextel alter nor did we hear sirens. We live fairly close to the CDF on Monticello Road. The entire neighborhood is safe and sound now. God Bless our first responders! No doubt they had their hands full and this fire was moving so fast. We were all caught off guard. Let’s work on that!!

    • Patricia Damery

      says on:
      December 5, 2017 at 1:09 am

      Thank you for writing. Neighbors are so important in these kinds of situations in which we so easily are on our own. However, given your proximity to the CDF, it is surprising there were no sirens and it is important for us all to find out why there were no Nixle alerts for so many of us.

  • Gregory Y. matsumoto

    says on:
    December 4, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    We live in a lane off of Vichy Ave. with 15 other homes. The Sheriff notified a gathering of a couple of residents at the beginning of the lane. He did NOT drive down the lane where the homes were most vulnerable and where 2 homes burnt down that night. Since he left abruptly, a young resident recognized the grave danger that the Sheriff had neglected. The young man jumped into his car and raced to the other homes to inform of us the evacuation around 3 am. The young man saved the lives of several families. The Sheriff was neglectful in not driving to each home. There were no sirens or loudspeakers going. An Emergency Warning System was absent.

    • Patricia Damery

      says on:
      December 5, 2017 at 1:03 am

      Thank you for taking the time to write. Thank goodness for that young man, but we need a more comprehensive Emergency Warming System.

      • Rona Novis Brackett

        says on:
        December 5, 2017 at 3:48 am

        Thank you so much for bringing these experiences out and sharing the sad truths of your experience.
        I live in downtown Napa. We got the alert system on our phone about 24 hours after the fires started. I wondered why some people I spoke to on the phone did not know about the fires up Valley on Atlas Peak Rd. And Monticello did not get any messages or warnings at their homes and neighborhoods. We need to be able to rely on conscientious first responders and police for the emergenciescthat occur. There must be a total re-evaluation of the way first responders, county and City employees, must respond during fires. There should be sirens going off immediately and all those in danger must be notified immediately. If there are escape routes, they must be mapped out and put online before disasters strike. We need a plan written out and shared with the whole community so that we are not thinking “every man for himself. I am proud of all the neighbors that helped so many and actually saved lives!
        I agree that we must have safety first when it comes to concerts and wineries and venues where people could really get trapped if there were a fire or any disaster. There has to be a plan and City and county workers there to organize people and help out in case of a disaster. Napa is a big city that has not yet come to teleras with how to have big city events in a rural environment. We are getting too big for our britches and safety for all the residents and visitors must be our first priority.

        • Patricia Damery

          says on:
          December 6, 2017 at 3:39 am

          Thank you for telling of your experience living in Napa City. A loud siren in many places would go a long way.Yes, the fire brought out the best in many people, but we also need a plan that effectively reaches people as immediately as humanly possible. This simply didn’t happen that night for many.

  • Shelle Wolfe

    says on:
    December 5, 2017 at 12:27 am

    We live 6 miles out Soda Canyon near the mailboxes. Sometime around 9PM the winds started going crazy… the solar panels were crashing up and down on the roof and I was trying to keep the 3 dogs calm. About 10-10:15 we received a call from a friend on Loma Vista (who later lost his house) saying he was evacuating and we should think about it also. I told him the power was probably going to go out soon and to call me back on my landline once he knew something. (Cell phone doesn’t work here without power and WiFi, so I plugged in an old princess phone so we had a line).
    And yes, the power did go out and my friend called back about 10:25 telling us to get out! At the same time I could hear a helicopter flying above saying something, but I couldn’t understand what. From my window, I could see it circle around the grape pickers out at Stagecoach and in seconds, I could see their headlights speeding down Soda Canyon, so it was easy to determine what the helicopter was saying. I wonder if they spoke Spanish?
    I ran around and woke up my 81 year old dad and got my housemate out of bed. We were all out of the house in 3 cars about 5-6 minutes later with 3 dogs in my car. I was first out of our driveway, then my housemate and then my dad.
    I wish I could publish a photo here… we started driving down the hill and it looked like the entire road and canyon were in flames!
    Our neighbors from above were stopped along the steep part of the road so I pulled up next to them and asked them if they were going down… he said no, he was going home.
    So, I started down the hill… soon there were flames and embers leaping from both sides of the road. The wind was crazy and carrying burning objects through the air in front of us. We had to drive around a downed tree that was on fire too.
    I heard we were the last people to come down the hill that night. Everyone else was told to go back. SODA CANYON ROAD DOES NOT HAVE AN EXIT OR OTHER WAY OUT. A few evacuated from Antica Winery and some from the top of Soda Canyon by helicopter .
    By the time we got to the Soda Canyon Store… my dad was not behind us any longer. i was going crazy! I should have driven him, but he insisted on taking his car. After about 20-30 minutes we got a call from him saying he turned back. He spent part of the night at the end of our driveway where he had cell service and the rest of the night at Antica winery, whose gates were opened by a local fireman I believe.
    My sister and I came back up the next afternoon to get my dad. It was like a war zone… charred remnants of homes, cars … telephone poles and trees on fire, downed power and phone lines, trees in the road, etc
    Another neighbor, two doors down, slept through the entire thing Sunday night and didn’t have a clue anything happened until she got in her car to go to work Monday morning and headed down the road! She sped back home, grabbed her husband and dog and they made the dangerous drive through flames and downed electric wires. No one came to her home and she didn’t hear the helicopter.
    The friend who called me to tell me about the fire,heard about it from a friend of his on Dry Creek across the valley… he could see flames in our area. My friend called his landlord (also lost their home on Loma Vista) and they called several people who called other people. A GOOD NUMBER OF THE MIDDLE SODA CANYON ROAD RESIDENTS escaped because of this ONE PHONE CALL from someone on Dry Creek! What happened to our Fire Wise “Call em All”? NIXLE? Emergency alert on a cell phone such as when there are flood warnings? We had NOTHING! There should absolutely be some sort of Tsunami warning type of system in remote areas and where there is no exit other than the way in. There USED to be a road through Antica to Atlas Peak, and there was another road over the hill to Silverado Trail. But neither of these exist any longer. We need an exit plan and we need a warning system.

    • Patricia Damery

      says on:
      December 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

      What a nightmare! Thank you for taking the time to tell what happened. We are glad you all are safe, but a safety program should not be contingent on people across the valley preforming fire lookout duties. We need a county wide program that does not leave so many people out.

  • Michael D. Setty

    says on:
    December 5, 2017 at 1:42 am

    Well, there were no “first responders” on the upper end of Atlas Peak Road, except myself and two neighbors who luckily happened to also be experienced firefighters. We were able to “escape” through a private road from the end of Atlas Peak Road that went through to Soda Canyon Road, but only through the gracious opening of private gates. I think 10-15 cars and 30+ people went out that way.

    My suggestion is that for the future, there needed to be a fire road connection to the Pritchard Hill area from upper Sage Canyon Road, plus some fire roads used in emergency only from Atlas Peak Road to Circle Oaks and Capell Valley. We would have been @#$%^@@ if we didn’t have that neighbor’s road, the fire had been up there already, etc.

    • Patricia Damery

      says on:
      December 6, 2017 at 3:43 am

      Thank you for your very concrete suggestion that actually saved a number of people.

    • Shelle Wolfe

      says on:
      December 6, 2017 at 9:55 pm

      Hi Michael,
      This back road you are talking about is the one that SHOULD be open for us all. It goes through the Antica Winery (if it is the same one) and Antica has told us that it is not open. If we wanted to get through their gate to get to Atlas Peak … the response was “that is what bolt cutters are for”. But even with bolt cutters, you could only open their walk-in gate… not the main gate.
      There was a fireman on the Soda Canyon side of the road who opened their gates I believe, so that YOU and your neighbors were able to get through once you came down from Atlas Peak.

      Thank you Vision 2050 for asking the question!

      • Patricia Damery

        says on:
        December 7, 2017 at 2:13 pm

        Not many of us carry bolt cutters nor possibly have the strength to use them. Thank you for this information, Shelle. Like Fire Exits in buildings used only for emergencies, perhaps this route is one that has to be readily open at all times, with the caveat it’s for emergencies only. Too much is at stake. Please consider contacting the Board of Supervisors with this information.

  • Karla Bailey

    says on:
    December 7, 2017 at 4:29 am

    I was sound asleep when my Building Contractor, Joe Beltrami, called at 10:00 PM to alert me. He saved my life as well as the lives of my two large dogs with this call! I have loved him like a son for many years and am now convinced he is a saint!
    I tried to call CALFire with no answer and simply did not have time to place an emergency broadcast to our Atlas Peak Firewise data base of mountain residents.
    I had to run up to a storage building with a flashlight (100+ yards away) in horrendous winds, to retrieve my Jeep and drive my dogs off our property.
    About 1.5 miles down, I was stopped behind a line of cars waiting for removal of a downed tree. That took about 40 minutes and, of course, I would love to have those 40 minutes back to take precious items from my house!
    I met my grandson, Justin Bailey at Nob Hill and then stayed at his apartment for 2 nights followed by 4 nights in Lincoln at his Mother’s, returning to Napa Sat. Oct. 14.
    We were not allowed to view my house and property for 16 days post fire. This was an anxiety-ridden waiting period because, even tho’ my house was reported as burned, my grandson, Joe, and I) had to see it personally for confirmation.
    I am deeply grateful to those who have been so kind and helpful to me during this dreadful time.

    • Patricia Damery

      says on:
      December 7, 2017 at 2:04 pm

      Karla, Thank you for telling your story. Thank goodness you have so many people around you who helped. Your story is the norm, however, and we need to make sure that next time there is an emergency, there is an alert system/s in place that is effective.Hopefully our officials are listening to these stories of where and how the alerts were missing or insufficient to help us all plan.

  • Chris Miller

    says on:
    January 12, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    I don’t know that I would have gotten out if the power hadn’t quit at 10:00, allowing me to see the glow of the approaching flames. I didn’t get a text alert until I’d been out of Soda Canyon for an hour. On the escape we were trapped above a fallen live oak for quite some time. I was able then to call 911 and spoke to a clueless operator who kept asking for clarification of where Soda Canyon was. Shortly after that a helicopter flew slowly up Soda Canyon over the line of evacuees and their cars still stuck above the tree and blabbered something completely incoherent at us through a speaker or megaphone. I have been listening to the efforts by politicians and regional administrators to improve the early warning systems in the wake of the failures of those existing systems in October. One thing I am troubled by is their leaning towards a more multifaceted cellular based system. We’ve already been victims of the failings of cellular communication in an emergency. Perhaps isolated rural areas should have an old technology system like a loud siren that, when it begins screaming in the neighborhood leaves no doubt that the warning is directed at us and we need to get moving. Also, agree absolutely that the access into and out of these dead end canyons needs to be opened up to all safe means of escape, and private property should not stand as an obstacle against emergency access.

    • Patricia Damery

      says on:
      January 18, 2018 at 4:10 am

      Thank you for taking the time to respond to this. Yes, we need to be very careful about relying too much on cellular based systems. We were not prepared for this emergency by any stretch of the imagination. So glad that you escaped!

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