Volunteers help those who lost all in Valley fire

Katie Pannell, 56, holds her dog Cloe as granddaughter Willow Blossom Stephens, 5, eats a pancake Thursday at the Valley fire evacuation center set up at Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga. Seven of her family members fled the Valley fire.
Katie Pannell, 56, holds her dog Cloe as granddaughter Willow Blossom Stephens, 5, eats a pancake Thursday at the Valley fire evacuation center set up at Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga. Seven of her family members fled the Valley fire.

A massive outpouring of aid at the Napa County fairgrounds is helping to ease the grief and anxiety of evacuees, many of whom lost their homes and nearly everything they owned in the inferno of the Valley fire.

The fairgrounds in Calistoga are an official evacuation center, equipped with RV sites, cots and dozens of portable toilets. Insurance companies have set up camp and the Red Cross has a heavy presence.

Beyond such essentials, volunteers from the surrounding wine country prepare gourmet meals, show outdoor movies and sort stacks of donated clothing.

“We haven’t wanted for anything,” said Jon Ryon, whose home in Middletown was among 585 incinerated in the fire. He sat in a circle of camp chairs with friends on one of the fairground’s broad lawns, covered in campers and tents.

“Wine tasting is at 9 tonight,” Ryon joked, a smile relaxing his taut face and tired eyes.

The Valley fire started one week ago on Sept. 12 near the mountain community of Cobb. It roared down the valley along Highway 175 and Putah Creek toward Middletown, with a ferocity and speed that caught many off guard.

Three residents, including two in the rural subdivision of Anderson Springs, have been confirmed dead. Officials say they expect to find additional victims as search teams continue to work.

The fire has consumed 73,700 acres in the mountains northeast of Calistoga in southern Lake County. It was 45 percent contained as of Friday evening, with crews making good progress overnight, Cal Fire reported.

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Recent rains and cool humid air have helped bring the fire under control this week, officials said. More than 400 engines are working smoldering hot spots amid concern the fire could flare up again in this weekend’s warmer temperatures.

“We have to do that mop-up to make sure this fire goes to bed. We just can’t (become complacent),” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Scott McLean said Friday in Middletown.

Across the Central Valley in Amador and Calaveras counties, the Butte fire, which began Sept. 9 and burned 70,760 acres, was 63 percent contained by Friday evening, Cal Fire said. That fire, too, forced hundreds to evacuate and destroyed 503 homes. At least two residents died.

Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire spokesman, said more people are being allowed to return home as mandatory evacuation orders are lifted.

The Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort in Jackson has served as a major evacuation center in the Butte fire. In Lake County, the Red Cross established its main evacuation center at the fairgrounds in Calistoga, about 17 miles down winding Highway 29 from Middletown.

In the past week, the fairgrounds have become a makeshift community of roughly 1,000 residents who fled the Valley fire. Services on site Thursday included a mobile veterinary unit and a Verizon van with computers and printers.

Pallets of bottled drinking water, cases of baby food and cartons of diapers are among the many supplies on hand. At several locations, volunteers stacked piles of clothes donated from as far away as San Francisco.

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Volunteer Carol Guthrie staffed one of the kiosks with four friends from Calistoga who wore matching striped aprons. She said people had been coming by all day asking for clothes based on what they had to leave behind and changing weather conditions.

With temperatures dropping at night, more parents had asked for long-sleeve shirts and jackets for their children. She showed a cellphone photograph of one young girl, with dark hair and big dark eyes, clutching a new hand-knit blanket that had been donated.

“She just grabbed onto it and held it,” Guthrie said.

Food was plentiful. Hundreds of hot dogs cooked on a big outdoor grill. Chefs from local restaurants, some trained at the nearby Culinary Institute of America, prepared meals with help from volunteers in several dining halls.

At one of the pavilions, volunteer Tony McBeardsley took a break at dinner time in a white apron and baseball cap. He said he’d arrived early Sunday morning when the Red Cross was setting up the center and had been there on and off ever since.

He’d started Thursday at 6 a.m. serving breakfast and sorted “tons of bread” donated by stores and bakeries for that evening’s meal, which called for about 300 dinner rolls. The semi-retired Calistoga resident said he’d found the volunteer work rewarding.

“It’s the gratification of doing something worth doing,” he said.

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At a nearby table, Ann Prehn sat down to a paper plate heaped with tri-tip roast, corn on the cob and sauteed vegetables that looked like a meal from a pricier restaurant.

Her home was destroyed in Anderson Springs, where 191 of 200 homes burned, she said. She hoped to find a room at a local hotel that might offer lodging to evacuees, she said.

As she was talking to a visitor, an older man ran up crying, saying he was overwhelmed and couldn’t take much more.

Russell Gonzaga, who hugged the man to comfort him, said he’d lost his home at New Age retreat Harbin Hot Springs, where he lived and worked. The fire completely destroyed the resort.

Gonzaga said he hopes to be employed rebuilding Harbin but doesn’t know where he’ll live. Like others, he said it could take years to rebuild homes and a community so damaged by the Valley fire.

“They’re telling us to think long haul,” Gonzaga said.

After the man calmed down and walked away, Prehn explained that even though the evacuation center was a supportive environment, filled with members of a close-knit rural community, many were extremely stressed by their sudden loss and the efforts now required to rebuild their lives.

“We’re all friends. We all know each other,” she said. “It’s just a lot coming at you.”

Hudson Sangree: 916-321-1191, @hudson_sangree

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