Calistoga: Classic tourist mecca sadly becomes near-ghost town
In the midday haze, a lone figure wearing a mask and neon safety vest walked down the yellow lines dividing the empty main street of Calistoga.
It was Mayor Chris Canning. He was making house calls. About 40 people defied an all-city mandatory evacuation order issued Wednesday to spend the night in their homes, to sleep in their beds. By Thursday afternoon, about half of the holdouts had gone, leaving roughly 15 remaining residents in a town with a population of 5,400.
Neon X’s spray-painted on the front walkways of homes marked the spots where residents had refused to leave, even after several visits from authorities. First came the firefighters. Then police and correctional officers. Now, it was Canning’s turn. He didn’t mince words.
“This is your official notice that, if you stay, no resources will be exerted to ensure your safety,” the mayor said he told residents. “And if, after all of this, you choose to stay, you better not get in the way of our first responders.”
Calistoga, at the top of the Napa Valley, was at the bottom of the Tubbs Fire, which had burned 34,000 acres and was only 10 percent contained as of Thursday afternoon, according to Cal Fire. As the Tubbs Fire pressed southeast into Calistoga, the Atlas Fire, 31 miles away, continued on its path as well, burning across Napa and Solano Counties. It had consumed 43,000 acres and was only 3 percent contained as of Thursday afternoon.
Between those fires sits St. Helena, which was under a nonmandatory evacuation order. On Thursday, things looked up and so did the residents who chose not to evacuate.
“Today is good. We can see blue sky. The last three days, we couldn’t see anything,” said Jeff Warren, grandson of the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, and a St. Helena resident since 1959. Warren had electricity for the first time all week and he had water, which he was applying via sprinklers on the lawn of his 1883 Victorian.
“St. Helena has never burned in 150 years,” said Warren, who remembers the close call of the Hanley Fire, which burned 52,000 acres and destroyed 84 homes, after a hunter flicked his cigarette ash on the slopes of Mount St. Helena on Sept. 19, 1964.
“I think this town is going to be fine,” Warren said.
After being closed all week, Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch reopened for dinner on Main Street in St. Helena, though one of the restaurant managers had lost his home in the Santa Rosa Fire, and a few others had to commute from evacuation centers.
“For the local community, there is nowhere else to go at the moment,” proprietor Chris Hall said. “Farmstead is a local gathering place and we felt it important to provide that to the community while everybody is dealing with the devastation.”
Meanwhile, nothing was open in Calistoga, just 8 miles up Highway 29. Now and then, a fire truck or police cruiser rolled down Lincoln Avenue, the main drag. The Calistoga Fire Department has 13 firefighters, bolstered by backup from the St. Helena Fire Department, the Colton Fire Department in San Bernardino County and the Murrieta Fire Department in Riverside County.
Motorcycle cops on loan from Oakland, did traffic control and a California Highway Patrol helicopter flew overhead.
The only civilian on foot was Mayor Canning, in his mask and yellow safety vest. The fire was in the hills, but he did not trust it to stay there.
“It’s now moving in a direction we do not appreciate,” he said.