The Devastating Effects of the Glass Fire on Our Community

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Sierra Club Fire Photo

It’s been almost two years since the devastating Glass Fire, and Napa County’s Howell Mountain is barely returning to life. The views are scarred with blackened trees, piles of abandoned the brush and landscapes reminiscent of war-torn lands. The fire, active for 23 days, destroyed 67,482 acres and 1,555 buildings in Napa and Sonoma Counties.   About 300 or so of those were houses on Howell Mountain, mostly in Deer Park.

The fire is believed to have started near a machine shed in Deer Park, which is midway up the mountain, on the road to the top, where the small town of Angwin, surrounded, by fiery blasts, mostly survived.

However, Deer Park, the home of St. Helena Hospital, is devastated. Gone are the low-income trailer parks, the 100-year-old homes, and the beauty of the trees shading the narrow lanes defining the rural character of the community. Now, empty lots with fallen rocks are dotted with white RV’s where people live until they rebuild.  With trees charred and crashed, views of the valley are unobstructed, and the beauty of what was taken in those 23 days is evident to anyone taking a drive up the hill.

Lots are mostly cleared, some surrounded by orange plastic hazard tape.  California orange poppies, purple lupine and even yellow sunflowers are blooming in the wreckage, but other life has mostly disappeared.   Silence prevails on the hillsides.

A couple new homes have popped up, maybe larger than before, and a few signs of upcoming builds are scattered throughout the area. Several lots have been converted to vineyards.

The pace of rebuilding, compared to Solano and Sonoma Counties wildfire rebuilds, is much slower, according to Amy Christopherson of Christopherson Builders, a construction company leading much of the rebuilds in all three counties.

“In Deer Park,” she explained, “a lot of the people had lived there for generations. Many of those houses are over a hundred years old.  They were built before permits were needed and records are spotty.  Some are on septic systems…the conditions are challenging, daunting, particularly for those on rocky slopes.”

The one-lane streets, Mund, Champion, Sunnyside, terracing the mountain, once squeezed square footage into every inch of land they could    The older shingled wooded homes were then added to, built up and remodeled through time. The burn destroyed the history and affordability.  Insurance payouts are on square footage, difficult to claim without a permit or record.

Current rebuilds would allow for larger homes than what was there before, but there are costs involved.   Costs, Christopherson points out, costs that many current owners are unable to afford.

“Many of the homes burned down were insured by the California FAIR Plan, and there’s not enough money to rebuild,” she said.  “They can build up to 124% of what was there before, but it is expensive, and they also must improve the roads.”

The California FAIR Plan covers fire basic fire damage to structure and personal belongings. It is the insurer of last resort.

Christopherson is currently looking to build nine houses, she added.

On March 1, there were six Zillow listings for one home for sale in Angwin, the lowest priced was $750,000.   Only one burned out lot was listed in Deer Park, at $495,000.

Kellie Anderson, an Angwin environmental activist, points out that it’s not just the damage from the fires that is changing the ecology of mountain, but also the thousands of trees recently cut to stumps by PG &E contractors, and the ongoing death of the forests due to drought and beetle devastation.

Housing rebuilds aside, what made the mountain so valuable was the fact that it is the watershed for Napa Valley, said Anderson.  “This is where the water comes from, and watching these trees die without anyone paying attention is a disaster.”

Driving up and down the empty streets, there no evidence of tree replacement.  With the advantage of the trees gone, there seems to only be more room for homes, vineyards and expansive views.

More trees are coming down. To save from future fires, PG&E has hired contractors to cut down thousands of trees on the mountain.  Yellow x’s mark their future. Those already felled are rolled on the sides of driveways and roads.

Other trees are also dying. Destined to fall, the pines and fir trees, eaten by beetles and dehydrated by drought, are browning by the hundreds.  Throughout all this devastation, the bulldozers and graders continue to clear land for more vineyards.

“It won’t be long and most of the forests on this mountain will be gone,” Anderson said.  “These trees are important to our watershed.  We don’t have the rainfall anymore, and the only precipitation we get is the condensation on these trees.  But, as we lose trees, we will also lose the water.”

Twenty-eight years ago, when Anderson moved to her one- acre property, she bought it with a low-income HUD loan for less than $100,000.  Her home is one of five on a very short street, and a neighbor’s house recently sold for over a million dollars.   Seeing local trends, she isn’t surprised at the monetary gain, but wonders how others will ever be able to live in these communities that were once the outliers for the working poor.

“We used to say, ‘drive until you can afford to buy,’” says Anderson, “But now, there’s really no place left to buy, because nothing is cheap.”

It’s not just the affordability, but also the wildfire risk.  Insurance rates have increased dramatically, and Anderson points out that her own insurance has gone up from $2,000 to $7,000 this year. She can’t imagine how difficult it might be for long term residents, many who are low income, to pay these increased rates.

Anderson believes Howell Mountain’s aging population will also contribute to the changeover in homes.  There’s another house on her street where older neighbors have moved into senior apartments closer to town.   It wasn’t just the fear of future wildfires that concerned them, but also the electricity shut offs, sometimes lasting several days at a time.

“Many of the homes are being bought by people who are making them their second, or vacation homes,” she said. “My husband and I, when we talk about our plans for aging…well, we don’t talk about leaving our home due to age, we talk about what we’ll do when our house burns down…that’s a when, not an if.”

She points out that many of the streets winding up hillsides are too narrow for fire trucks, and there are no fire hydrants in many areas.  Fires are a significant threat.

However, wildfire threat and power shutdowns hasn’t stopped people from building, buying or investing.

Even the Napa County Board of Supervisors have pushed back again the Department of Forestry, who in 2021 recommended that rebuilding and expansion of wineries and residences be restricted alongside these narrow and dead-end roadways unless specified conditions be met.  These conditions included widening driveways, putting in turnarounds and secondary access roads.

Some of these conditions, according to Christopherson, are already in place for the rebuilds, and the road improvements can be an impediment.  On the private roads, the rebuilds must pay for the road improvements, on public roads, it is up to the county.  Part of Sunnyside, for example, is a public road, she said.

Napa Board of Supervisors wrote a letter on March 17, 2021, stating, “The new regulations proposed by the BOF staff will have dire consequences for many communities throughout the state, effectively prohibiting residential construction and business expansion in large parts of our counties.”

These regulations have not been adopted.

In a tour of the area, Anderson pulls off the roads several times to allow tour buses and other cars to pass, pointing out, “see, you can hardly get by, and they want to build more wineries on this road…how will people be able to evacuate during a wildfire?”

She recounts her own two evacuations where “so many people were trying to leave at once, that traffic just stopped. Look what happened to the road, it was completely incinerated.”

With more vineyards, wineries and workers destined for the mountain, Anderson also questions the viability of increased traffic and where these workers can possibly live.  Before the fires, she knew of many who lived in the additions, back rooms, shed and trailers on lots of some of the older homes.

“There were lots of little encampments on this mountain, we had an informal support system,” she said.  “Everything’s been ruined.”

As change mounts, Anderson is worried about the trees.   She points out one after another that’s destined for slaughter.  Some trees are encircled with ribbons stating, “do not cut.”  On her own frontage property on Howell Mountain Road, 32 trees were cutdown, with more destined for a similar fate.

She laughs, telling the story of neighbors physically encircling one tree in order to save it from the tree contractors employed by PG&E.  Some of the tree cutting work doesn’t make sense to Anderson.

“I don’t understand what it means to be fire resilient,” she said. “What’s this way of thinking now…that the tree is our enemy?  The trees are dying.  It’s cataclysmic, and it’s happening now.   It’s unstoppable. Our government doesn’t give a shit, and there’s nothing we can do, anyway.”

But she figured that if government won’t stop the development, perhaps it will just be the matter of the insurance rates, which eventually, may become unaffordable to many.

Christopherson agrees that getting fire insurance coverage can be an impediment.

“People are going to have problems getting insurance,“ she said.  “I don’t think these areas are going to rebuild for a very long time.  It is very challenging.”

(PG&E, Napa Firewise and the Napa County Planning dept. were contacted for, and did not respond to requests for comment.)

Article by Yvonne Baginski, Sierra Club – Redwood Chapter