After an agonizing week on edge, good news for some Napa County residents

In the week since fires forced residents to flee, hundreds of people have lived on edge about the fate of their homes in Circle Oaks, a mountain community on the east side of Napa County and in the path of the deadly Atlas fire.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Cheryl Lynn de Werff was certain her Napa County house was going to burn when she was forced to flee as a massive fire sped toward her Circle Oaks community.

It was 1 a.m. and she had just gone to sleep in her second-story bedroom when a sheriff’s deputy pounded on her door. It was so loud there was no way she could miss it.

“So I came running to the door and he says, ‘Get out! Get out now, there’s a fire coming!’ I was lucky enough that I had a load of clothes in the dryer. I literally grabbed the clothes, threw them in a grocery bag and ran out the door and peeled out of the driveway” in her turquoise 2001 Thunderbird, de Werff said.


In the week since, de Werff, 65, and hundreds like her have lived on edge about the fate of their homes in Circle Oaks, a mountain community on the east side of Napa County and in the path of the deadly Atlas fire.

She was worried about the garage, where she stores documents for a nonprofit she works with and receipts she keeps for tax season.

“What if I was audited? I’d have nothing,” she said.

De Werff, a retired school superintendent, said that on the first night of the evacuation, she stayed with a man whom she’d just met on a blind date the week before. He’d headed up from San Francisco to Napa to rescue her when he heard about the fire but was turned away halfway up the mountain. He got high enough in the hills to reach her by cellphone in the valley and they agreed to rendezvous in Fairfield.

“I guess that was his second date!” De Werff said, laughing.

She has been bouncing between one-night stays in hotels and friends’ homes ever since. She said she’s getting about an hour of sleep a night and is miserable without her clothes and other belongings.

There has been every reason to worry. The Atlas fire has burned more than 51,000 acres, killed six people and destroyed more than 300 homes.

But at a community meeting Sunday attended by about 60 people at the Napa Valley Unified School District Auditorium, de Werff and her neighbors got the best kind of news possible: All of their homes were safe.

Though mandatory evacuations remain in place for Berryessa Highlands, Circle Oaks, and the Green Valley Community in Solano County, among other neighborhoods, officials have changed their tone in describing the fire.

No longer are they emphasizing the risk of potential devastation to more homes. Instead, they’re pleading for patience while they mop up the fire’s hot spots and have crews clear out scorched debris, fallen trees and repair roads.

As of late Sunday, the Atlas fire was 65% contained.

Public health officials urged residents to call in state clean-up crews free of charge when they can return to clear their property of any ash or burned materials, all of which are toxic.

Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann described the Atlas Peak area as a “moonscape” with nothing left.

“It burned everything,” he said.

When asked why Napa County seems to be more responsive than proactive in preparing for natural disasters, the fire chief offered a rebuttal.

“Defensible space — it was all in place,” he said.

The president of a nonprofit, Napa Firewise, whose mission is to inform the public about wildfire dangers, lost his home despite having 300 feet of land cleared around his property, Biermann said.

The fire spread at up to 200 feet a second, Biermann said.

Now residents are waiting to see what they have left when they return.

Atlas Peak remains closed. Every road sign, from a posted speed limit to a cautionary “Slow Down” sign around a curve, has to be replaced before the roads are deemed safe for the public to travel, said County Supervisor Diane Dillon.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) reassured residents and workers in the country illegally that immigration officers would continue avoiding enforcement in the area while the emergency is underway. The exception is for known criminals already targeted by the agency.

Public Health Director Karen Relucio said the water is safe to drink but the air is still considered hazardous. A new batch of thousands of face masks were expected to arrive in Napa County on Monday, officials said.

Twitter: @JosephSerna


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