CALISTOGA (CBS SF) — Nearly a week after they were forced to flee their homes from the approaching flames of the Glass Fire, Calistoga residents were told Sunday they could return to their homes at their own risk as officials downgraded an evacuation order for the wine county community to a warning.
“In cooperation with state and local authorities the city’s evacuation order has been downgraded to a warning, effective 3 p.m. today,” officials said in a release. “Residents are now able to return at their own risk. While a potential threat to the city remains, the threat is no longer imminent. Active fire remains in areas of northern Napa County near Calistoga and smoke is likely to be visible.”
Evacuation orders were also downgraded Sunday to warnings in the community of Kenwood and Porter Creek Road areas.
By Sunday night, the fire had grown to 64,900 acres with 26 percent containment. The fire also has taken a devastating toll in homes, businesses and wineries. At least 487 homes and 326 commercial buildings have been destroyed in Sonoma and Napa counties with Cal Fire warning that number will climb as damage estimate teams gain additional access to the burn area.
While firefighters had tamed the fire at the Calistoga city limits, there was an intense battle going on north of the city. New evacuation orders for residents living in northern Napa County were issued on Sunday.
The evacuations were for the areas of Northern Napa County bordered on the west by Highway 29 at the Robert Louis Stevenson trailhead, the north by Livermore Road, the east by Aetna Mine Road, and the existing evacuation orders to the south.
Officials also said Pope Valley Road between Pope Valley Cross Road and Aetna Springs Road and Highway 29 between the Lake County Line and Deer Park Road were closed.
In his late Saturday night update, Cal Fire Fire Behavior Analyst Brian Newman said the blaze was particularly active along the north edge as it begins to bump into the burn scar left over from the recent Hennessey Fire.
“It’s very active in the area and still challenging the firefighters on the control lines,” he said. “It’s very dry. The fuels are very dry and just extremely receptive to burning.”
Meanwhile, as hopes soared as local meteorologists brought word of possible showers next weekend for the San Francisco Bay Area, battle-hardened Cal Fire officials were not quite as optimistic that the weather front will bring an end to the massive Glass Fire and other blazes raging across the region.
Cal Fire Operations Chief Mark Brutan has been in the middle of the fight since July. He was just wrapping up duties overseeing the firefight in the Santa Cruz Mountains from the CZU Lightning Complex fire when the call came to head to wine country and oversee the battle with the Glass Fire burning in Napa and Sonoma counties.
While he would love to see the current historic fire season come to an end, he also is a realistic and knows from the advance forecast of the storm front it is simply not carrying with it enough rain.
“Getting into next week, talking with our meteorologists, there are some forecast modeling indicating some precipitation,” Bruton said during his Saturday night briefing. “There are a lot of models they use and some say one thing, some say another. There are some tropical depressions breaking down that could indicate, although right now it’s a very outside possibility — I hate to say this but the potential for some dry lightning. That’s not a good thing for us to hear.”
An unprecedented outbreak of dry lightning in mid-August, triggered by a storm plume from a dying tropical storm, ignited the LNU Lightning Complex, the CZU Lightning, the SCU Lightning Complex and the August Complex fire that burned nearly 2 million acres in Northern California.
“Another model says we will see some very wetting precipitation — now will it be the end of a fire season? Absolutely not,” he added. “We would probably need to see somewhere between 4-6 inches to change how dry these fuels are to make it a game changer where it could shut down fire season. So is that a possibility, absolutely not.”
“Now could we see some precipitation that will throw an inch down — possibly. That’s on an outside extreme and we don’t anticipate seeing that. So if we do get some precipitation will it be a game changer? At the best for a day or two… All it will take is a day of north winds and it will erase all the moisture we get. I hate to be the bearer of bad news or gloom and doom but that’s how we have to look at things because this time of the year is the heart of our fire season.”
The roughly 45,000 residents who have been forced from their homes were hoping for official word from the damage assessment teams or images on news reports that will confirm their homes are still standing.
Santa Rosa officials have released a detail map of the damage done inside and around the city for their residents.
Over the last few days with winds calmer than expected, firefighters have also slowed the inferno’s march east toward Angwin, but also understand that’s just part of the battle.
“While we’ve been successful keeping the fire from impacting the community, we certainly don’t take lightly the fact we had to evacuate that community and essentially disrupt everyone’s lives up there,” said Napa County Fire Chief Geoff Belyea.
For now, the evacuees can only watch the flames from a distance and wonder when it will come to an end.
“It looks bad up there,” said Angwin evacuee Candice Black. “We still have our life, we still have our health. “So, there’s still things to be grateful for.”