IN HAZY NAPA VALLEY, LOOKING FOR NORMAL
Driving north on Route 29 through Napa Valley, just south of Yountville, the haze coalesces into smoke — proper smoke, tinted peach. By Thursday morning, you can see the sky through it — but it forms a scrim over 20 feet high.
That’s an improvement, say those left in downtown St. Helena. The fires burn all around, but the residents in the central Napa Valley are able to fashion a strange simulacrum of normality, one involving face masks and constant text-message check-ins.
With the vacationers and day-trippers decamped, and many of the city’s residents gone to flee the smoke, all that are left are a handful of die-hard, permanent residents. Despite the fires 10 miles away on either side, they are holding tight in their small towns, which have become hazy, empty, surreal versions of themselves.
In St. Helena, the dress boutiques are closed. Most of the cafes are closed. The post office is open, collecting mail. City Hall was distributing the most recent fire maps and masks until they ran out.
“The scariest time was when we didn’t have power or Internet,” says Wendy Strachan as she comes into the post office to collect her mail. The power came on first, then the phones, then the Internet. By 3 p.m. Tuesday, a sense of connection to the outside world, an optimistic wariness, had returned. Now she’s crossing her fingers and hoping the good luck holds.
During the power outage, Safeway, which had a generator, stayed open, its staff working long hours.
At nearby Smith’s Pharmacy, owners Debbie and Jeff Hansen locked the doors and let one person in at a time, trying to fill prescriptions and distribute what masks they had, hand-writing credit card slips.
The Hansens have told anyone who wants to work that they can come in. “Some are panicky,” Debbie said. “We’re not making anyone work. A lot of them have been evacuated.”
Many of the other pharmacies in the area are closed. Some of their customers fled so quickly they couldn’t bring their medications, so the Hansens are trying to fill what prescriptions they can, even if it’s just a few pills. The California State Board of Pharmacy has declared a state of emergency, so they’re able to refill prescriptions even if the time for a refill hasn’t arrived.
Gillwoods Cafe on Main Street is one of the few restaurants in town that is still open, and most of the tables are filled. Inside, masks are off — people are tired of wearing them — and the room smells of bacon fat and syrup, not smoke. Most have spent the past few days trying to protect their property and track family as they disperse to safer areas, packing evacuation bags just in case.
Michael Baldacci sits down to order, his red hair and beard a mass of scruff. His home was evacuated, so he’s been staying with friends in Yountville. He was trying to get to Calistoga to check on his family’s vineyards but couldn’t get through, and he saw the cafe was open on his way back south. His family’s Baldacci Winery is located on Silverado Trail, and he spent Monday watching businesses and vineyards across the street burn. A lot of neighbors, he says, lost theirs.
Since then, he’s been taking back roads to get to and from the winery. The frustrating part, he says, is not having a sense of what’s happening outside the valley. “No one knows where the fire is,” he says.
“So many people have been calling and texting, offering help,” Baldacci says, “but there’s only so much we can do. If I could strap on a hose and fight the fire, I would.”
Across the room is Ana Canales, a first-grade teacher at St. Helena Primary. School has been closed since Monday, but she and other staff have been directed to return Friday. She hasn’t been sitting at home; she had to take her aging mother, who has respiratory problems made worse by the smoke, to the hospital, then check her out and send her to Berkeley to a sister’s house. A daughter has gone to Oakland with the grandchildren.
Why has she stayed? “This is our home,” she says.
“We like smoke,” adds her husband, Bruce Streblow.
“It’s just smoke” is the refrain you hear at cash registers in town.
“Surreal” is the other refrain, not least because as the day has progressed, a blue sky has emerged over the center of the valley.
Yountville feels like the eye of a hurricane. There, amid the calm, Vanessa Quintara stands in line at Bouchon Bakery. She works at Bouchon Bistro next door. The night before, Quintara says, the night sky was glowing orange. Now it is clear and blue, plumes of smoke far to the north, south, and east. Almost a normal, beautiful day.
“You want to get a manicure, but you’re not sure if you even could,” she said, laughing. The scene now, she agrees, is surreal. The word becomes a reminder of just how illusory “real” is, and how it often just means “habit.” The moment a disaster hits, reality takes on dreamlike overtones, as if one has entered a fable.
Yountville is deserted on Thursday afternoon, the most manicured ghost town in the West. A few bicyclists, blue masks tied around their mouths, pedal lazily up the main street, and a few older men in motorized wheelchairs roll down the sidewalk. A team of gardeners mows a lawn.
Habit has quickly returned. But the
tourists are gone. So are most of the residents.
Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery are almost the only businesses in Yountville open to customers. Quintana says, however, that Bouchon has 13 diners instead of the normal 200, and the line in front of the bakery, which is normally 30 deep, takes a mere minute to navigate.
On the bakery’s patio, the Bouchet family drinks coffee and eats pastries en route home from a trip up to Spring Mountain to check on Pride Mountain Vineyards, where Tim Bouchet works. Then they stopped at Safeway in St. Helena.
The news from friends can be bleak — so many people they know have lost homes — but the winery where Tim works has been spared ... so far.
They are relieved to be able to drink coffee at a cafe, to sit outside in the sunlight as if it were just another day. “We’ve been housebound since Sunday night,” Natalie Bouchet says. First, they were hosting friends from Calistoga, who had turned over their house to evacuees from another fire. Then smoke kept them indoors. Natalie tried to go to the gym, but each time the automatic doors opened the air would fill with smoke once more, and she quickly grew nauseated.
Soon they’ll drive south, into the smoke, again.
Someone placed a filtration mask on the Sidewalk Judge statue, which resides on a bench in front of the Community Center in Yountville.