Napa County: Res­i­dents hold­ing their breaths even as smoke clears

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Kauff­man

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 fact that there are fires 10 miles away on ei­ther side, they are hold­ing tight in their small towns, which have be­come hazy, empty, sur­real ver­sions of them­selves.

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 Tues­day at 3 p.m., a sense of con­nec­tion to the out­side world, an op­ti­mistic wari­ness, 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 Yount-

“So many peo­ple have been call­ing and tex­ting, of­fer­ing help, but there’s only so much we can do. If I could strap on a hose and fight the fire, I would.” Michael Bal­dacci, evac­u­ated owner of Bal­dacci Win­ery, which is lo­cated on Sil­ver­ado Trail

ville 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.

Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle

Some­one placed a fil­tra­tion mask on the Side­walk Judge statue, which re­sides on a bench in front of the Com­mu­nity Cen­ter in Yountville.

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