Calistoga Blaze roars to life
By John Waters Jr.
FOR THE STAR
Thursday, June 28, 2007 12:27 AM PDT
CDF Fire Engineer Jay McNulty, who works out of the St. Helena station, rides to the edge of Monday’s fire on the Sonoma County side of the fire, which also burned in a remote part of Napa County just above Franz Valley School Road near Calistoga. John Waters Jr. photo
A fire of unknown origin roared to life in the hills above Franz Valley School Road Monday, burning more than 45 acres, threatening few structures and rattling lots of nerves.
Crews were expected to have the fire fully contained by Wednesday morning.
“I saw the smoke above the hills there and it was a bit worrisome,” said Ray Breitenstein Tuesday. “Fortunately, it didn’t come over the hills this way, but for a while I recalled the 1964 fires that nearly came down into the valley here. That was really scary, so I’m glad they got a handle on this one.”
Late Monday, fire crews from several departments battled a brush fire west of Calistoga that, as of late Tuesday, had consumed more than 45 acres. Although the skies above Franz Valley School Road were clear by Tuesday afternoon, the blaze wasn’t dead, nor fully contained, according to Knights Valley Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Bud Pochini.
“I believe it’s nearly contained, but it won’t be fully contained until it stops sparking across the hand and dozer lines the fire crews have created around the fire,” Pochini said. “Right now, the fire keeps creeping along as the wind picks up little sparks and jumps them across the fire breaks.”
The fire began about 5:15 p.m. on Mountain Home Ranch Road near Petrified Forest Road, quickly burning about 20 acres, but by 9 p.m., the blaze had swallowed 35 acres, according to Tony Moriani from CalFire.
“We (Knights Valley volunteers) were stationed on the east side of the hills from the fire, waiting to see if it would continue to move this way,” Pochini said. “If it had, we would have been right in its path.”
Ironically, Pochini said, the Knights Valley firefighters would have had to protect the home of one of its own had the wind shifted easterly.
“We were mostly up by Augie Grube’s, our fire chief’s house,” Pochini said. “If the fire had come over the crest there his property could have been right in its path.”
That scenario never happened. At least one home was threatened, Pochini said.
“One of the CalFire crew told us there was a home directly in the path of the fire at one point,” said Pochini, a 16-year firefighting veteran. “It was bearing down on the house so fire crews broke into it to try and save it, but the wind shifted and their efforts were, in the end, not needed there.”
When fire crews break into homes to save them they focus on taking curtains from the windows and removing furniture from the walls closest to where they anticipate the fire will engage the home. They’ll also pull back any carpeting.
“The reason for that is that temperatures inside the house closest to the fire can get so hot the curtains, furniture and carpeting will spontaneously combust and the whole house could be lost,” he said.
There was another factor that threatened that home.
“They had brush and manzanita trees growing right up against the house,” Pochini said. “There was absolutely no defensible space between the brush and the home. If the winds had not shifted that house could have been completely lost. People don’t realize how important creating a defensible space around your home is when you live in the country. I hope they’ll think about that now.”
As the fire burned in timberlands, California Highway Patrol crews blocked off access to Petrified Forest and Franz Valley School roads, Moriani said, but there were no calls for voluntary evacuations of any residents in the area.
Numerous units from CalFire, Napa County Fire and Sonoma County fire agencies responded to the fire, including 13 engines, three bulldozers and four water tenders.
By 8 p.m. Napa County Fire crews stationed at the Big Tree Road station on Highway 128 were reporting the fire had expanded to between 30-40 acres at this time.
“It was spectacular,” Pochini said. “The guys on the other side of the hill were telling us that they had never seen flames so tall. Flames totally engulfed 150 pines, and the flames were about 100 feet higher than that, making columns of flames 250 feet high.”
By 9 p.m. Monday the night of the fire, Moriani said, there was no indication of what caused the fire.