Thank you to those who have wondered if we are OK here in the Napa Valley. Although the fire is called, “The Valley Fire,” it did not reach Napa Valley. Miraculously, rains on Wed. 9-16-15 slowed the firestorm and hopefully it will be contained in northeast Napa County, just north of Aetna Springs.
Saturday, 9-12-15, 9:30 PM:
A caravan of fire trucks roared through downtown St. Helena with sirens screaming. I thought it was odd because the community siren (that alerts our local volunteer firemen) had not sounded. I went outdoors to investigate. The engines were headed north so it seemed logical to look in that direction. Mountains to the west and north border our property, however, I could see a very scary red glow above the horizon through notch in the north-facing mountain. My knees trembled as panic-induced adrenaline surged through my veins. And if that weren’t enough, I got a whiff of the acrid smell of forest-fire smoke. All of Nature’s calamities can be terrifying, however, being consumed by fire must be the most horrifying way to die. I had no idea where the fire was, but a quick call to the SHPD information # informed me that there were no fires in Napa County. Somewhat relieved, but still curious, I Googled “Cal-Fire” for any information. The site noted that a fire was burning on Cobb Mountain, about 30 miles north of us in Lake County. This piqued my interest because 50 years ago I lived on Cobb Mt. and started my teaching career at Middletown High School.The fire was still relatively small and I went to bed assuming that ever-dutiful Cal-Fire would respond quickly and bring the fire under control. It was a huge misassumption. As a 37-year veteran biology teacher, I used to tell my students that man exists at the pleasure of Nature and not the other way around. 24 hours later, that law became a horrible reality as I discovered that in less than 24 hours over 50% of the town of Middletown had been scorched to the ground.
Amazingly, the firefighters were able to save all of the schools in Middletown, as well as the little one-room elementary “schoolhouse” on Cobb Mountain. However, the Middletown superintendent of schools just announced that, although all schools were saved, major smoke-damage and ash issues need to be corrected. The Middletown High School principal lost his home, as did 35 other teachers and school district employees. The latest info from Cal-Fire indicates that over 600 homes have been destroyed.
I only taught three years there, but I established ties with students that will last for a lifetime. It was devastating to see these students (now grandparents) interviewed on the media and posting their stories on Fb. The firestorm roared through town so fast that some residents left their homes in their pajamas and slippers. Veteran firefighters described the fire as like nothing they had ever seen.
Several emergency evacuation shelters were quickly established, including one at he Napa County Fairgrounds located at Calistoga, Ca. The response to requests for food, supplies and clothing from the Bay Area has been astounding. A nurse volunteered to help anyone with health issues. A local Vet offered his services to any of the large and small animals that needed assistance. Hundreds of volunteers have helped with meals, sorting through mounds of clothing trying to match what is available with what is needed and scores of other chores. Many of these volunteers are Calistogans, but some have come from Sacramento, San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area. A convoy of trucks and trailers with hay, alfalfa, clothing, sundries and toiletries arrived at Middletown from Humboldt County. Costco, Wal-Mart, and many other commercial business, have donated food and supplies. Calistoga merchants and merchants from all over Napa County, have donated food, equipment and supplies. Christie and I visited the shelter to drop off some camping equipment. It was overwhelming to see over 1,000 men, women and children trying to resettle in RVs, trailers, tents and the large pavilion hall with sleeping cots.
This is a tragic story from which some may never fully recover. To date, one woman and two men were trapped and perished in the fire. However, the fire has also provided the dreaded opportunity for people to act in extraordinary ways. Over 3,500 ground firefighters; bulldozer operators, helicopter and retardant bomber pilots literally put their lives on the line, trying to quell the raging inferno. Neighbors helped neighbors protect their homes or with rapid evacuation.
Events like these can be a sobering reminder that life is precious and fragile and should not be taken for granted. We live in a time when science and technology can avert many potential natural disasters, however, Mother Nature can be cruel and indifferent with her forces that shape the Earth. In a tragic irony, Middletown High School was scheduled to celebrate their Homecoming football game this weekend.
The Red Cross was the appointed lead emergency organization, but unfortunately they experienced some glitches before they achieved reasonable command, control and co-ordination of the numerous groups that wanted to help. Understandably, mobilizing and directing personnel to meet the instant needs of 1,000 people can be daunting. San Francisco and Tokyo are both multi-million, high-density populations that are built on, or dangerously close to major tectonic plate fault lines. It is sobering to wonder how FEMA or the Red Cross could handle a crisis with over 1 million casualties.
One amazing example of the human potential to cope with unspeakable adversity was recorded on one of the Bay Area news shows. A grizzly-faced man, in his mid-70’s, was asked by a reporter how he was faring. He twisted his face into a difficult smile and said, “Well I lost my car, house and all of my possessions, but I have my dog and a tent to sleep in so at least I am not homeless.”