Tag Archives: Atlas Fire

Part 3 It’s a Miracle

Mary Jane Stevens concludes Miracle at Soda Canyon, her harrowing tale of uncertainty and terror during the Atlas Firestorm.

…continued from March 27th—

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After hours waiting with a huge knot in my stomach, I heard from Bob.  Away from the fire, off the hill and heading towards town he was relieved to be a survivor, not a victim.  He said he was exhausted, coming down after a night fueled by adrenaline.  Never have I been happier or more relieved to hear his voice. I felt as if I’d been holding my breath for hours.  Finally I could breathe.

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I told him to drive over to Carolyn’s house where, assuming a positive outcome, she had waited up for him.  He could stay as long as he needed.  He headed west, dodging burning debris and skirting around roadblocks. As he drove he told me what he had just lived through.   I wished I could be there to hug him and tell him how glad I was that he was alive, unhurt.

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After talking to Bob, Casey was the first person I called, happy to tell him his dad was okay.  He was ecstatic to hear the news.  He was not so thrilled, to hear that it was almost a certainty that our house would not make it through the fire.  My next call was to Carolyn to let her know Bob was safe and on his way.  I left a message for Kelly.

When Kelly turned on her phone Monday morning, she was bombarded with voicemails and texts containing grisly details about the fire and concern for her family, including some from me.  Horrified and in tears, she called me immediately.  She hadn’t listened to the message I left with the good news about the man she calls “Her cute little Daddy.”  When I told her Bob had escaped, unscathed from the fire and was okay she cried tears of joy.  After a moment she said “Oh no, does this mean your house is going to burn again?  I can’t believe it.  I’m so sorry for you guys.”

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Later when I spoke to Casey I asked if he envisioned Bob’s body burned in the vineyard as I had.  Just as I thought, he told me that was exactly what he had imagined. As a firefighter Casey’s seen the horror of being trapped by fire.  Although he hasn’t spoken to me about how those things have affected him, I know he has hardened his heart so he can live with what he sees on the job.  When he thought his dad might die in the fire his heart was anything but hard.  I know neither of us has ever been afraid for a loved one as we were for Bob the night of the fire.  We both teared up, relieved that Bob had been saved as the fire raged on.

Once the L.A. Fires were contained a strike force was formed to help with the Napa fire.  Casey volunteered to be part of it but was not allowed to join. He was terribly disappointed.  Determined to help us, he was able to contact a Captain friend, part of the strike force, on his way to Napa.  He gave him our address and asked him to try to be assigned to fight the fire still burning there.  Ultimately, he and his contingency from L.A. worked for several days, never taking a break, defending our home and our neighbors’.

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I heard from a neighbor that one day, fourteen fire engines, one for every still intact home, several bulldozers and helicopters were trying to control the stubborn blaze.  Boeing seven-forty-sevens were dumping water and retardant on the fire. Hot shots were digging fire lines as was a corps of bulldozers.  I heard that Battalion Chief Garrett said, “They were going to put the nail in the coffin of the fire in Soda Canyon that day.” I prayed they would.

We got little specific information applying to Soda Canyon. I tried to manage my expectations by telling myself our home must have burned, surviving the inferno seemed impossible, but not knowing was driving me crazy.  When I couldn’t stand it anymore began calling people who might have news.  I phoned a neighbor who was in Reno.  She picked up saying “Your home is still standing Mary Jane! My son didn’t evacuate and is staying at our house. He got word to me earlier today and our homes are okay.”

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You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard that.  I burst into tears, delighted.  The following day I received a photo of our unscathed home sent by a firefighter who’d been camping nightly in our driveway putting out stray embers.  Seeing with my own eyes my home safe and sound was unmistakable proof.

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We later heard that, initially, the command center wasn’t planning to send resources up Soda Canyon until Casey’s friend asked to be assigned to that specific location.  It seems they were stretched so thin they only wanted to send firefighters to areas they were sure could be saved and ours was not on that list. Under those circumstances, why they allowed those men to work the fire by our home remains a mystery.

For many days the Atlas fire and others spawned by that blaze wreaked havoc across Napa, Solano, and Sonoma counties.  Thousands of homes have been destroyed, people died and many lives are shattered.

Not one of the homes in Foss Valley at the top of Soda Canyon Road, including ours, was lost, thanks to the heroic efforts of firefighters, hotshots from around the country, fire-retardant and water dropping  seven-forty-sevens and helicopters.  I will be forever grateful to everyone who had a part in saving my husband and my home. I owe them so much. I’m blessed for such a positive outcome when so many are still suffering from terrible losses.

Many people assumed our home burned, and when I tell them it’s still standing they are as incredulous as I am.  How did we ever get so lucky?

One explanation: it’s a miracle.

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Part 2: The Soda Canyon Store stood like a beacon at the bottom of the road.

 

Mary Jane Stevens continues Miracle at Soda Canyon, her harrowing tale of uncertainty and terror on the night the Atlas fire started.

…continued from March 14th—

Later, Bob would tell me his incredible tale of his experiences that night.

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mercurynews.com

Bob said he felt a little better that he knew they had been located, but they were still very much in danger.  The wind was loud, the sky dark and the smoke was suffocating. In the wee hours of the morning the wind buffeted his bare face, ears and hands when he got out of his truck.  He was anxious to get off the mountain.  When would help return?  Would help come in time?  Everything he saw proved his situation was grim. The black velvet sky was now clouded with smoke and sparkling with glowing embers, some very large, swirling in the howling wind. He prayed those embers would not land on a roof starting a fire that would create a chain reaction taking all the homes down. Ghostly clumps of smoldering scrub dotted the nightscape in the distant periphery, surrounding him like threatening wild animals ready to pounce and devour everything in their path.  An ominous orange glow at the horizon was the most terrifying sight of all.  Would the wind shift again and send the fire over the homes and directly toward Bob?

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Of the entire group of vehicles only three joined the convoy.  Bob wondered why there were only three.  A week later we found out at a party for fire survivors. Before he reached the evacuation area helicopters had evacuated all the people from the parked vehicles. They weren’t able to return to rescue the others because the high winds and smoke made it too dangerous to fly.  Only Bob and the occupants of the three other vehicles had been left behind.

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Bob joined the end of the convoy.  He wanted to get off the mountain, out of harm’s way.  That involved driving through the edge of the fire.  Slowly, they worked their way down, swerving around the glowing detritus in the road  while trying to steer clear of burning branches at the shoulder.  Embers were flying through the air around the convoy.  He said it was a bone-chilling sight when at the steepest part of the road Bob looked out over the canyon and there was fire as far as he could see.  Below him, and on either side of the road, the inferno burned everything in its path.  It looked as if no structures remained standing.  He could see only blackened trees silhouetted against the orange of the hissing, spitting, undulating fire following the road.

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Everything was on fire or already burned.  Then he saw one structure still standing: the Soda Canyon Store, a beacon at the bottom of the road on the corner at Silverado Trail.

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          Miracle at Soda Canyon part 1

Mary Jane Stevens joins Building a Better Story with Miracle at Soda Canyon, A Tale About One of the Worst Fires In California History. Mary Jane, a Napa resident for over 30 years, lives part time in Truckee. A retired business owner, she has begun to write about her life, her two adult children, one grandchild and husband Bob. She feels blessed in her marriage, which recently has survived more than the usual troubles of modern life. Please enjoy Mary Jane’s harrowing tale of fire and miracles.

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cnbc.com

Late Sunday evening, October 8, my husband Bob, called me at our home in Truckee to say that there were helicopters with bright lights hovering low outside our house in Napa; over loud speakers they were saying, “Fire! Evacuate! Evacuate Immediately!” 

Bob asked what he should take and I suggested a few necessities, cash, the insurance policy file, our laptop computers and my good jewelry, all which were in easy to reach places. I said, “Get out of there fast and call me when you get down the hill.”  He wanted to take all the paperwork out of the office but I told him to leave it, his life was the most important thing. I told him we’d made it through a fire in 2011 when the house was gutted, and we could do it again.

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About twenty minutes later I saw Bob’s name on my cell phone screen. I was relieved—a little prematurely it turned out. He was calling to say he couldn’t get down the hill—the road was blocked.  He and about twenty-five people, including neighbors and some vineyard workers who’d been picking in the dead of night, were trapped by the fire.  They were at the top of Soda Canyon Road near Atlas Peak Road seven miles from Silverado Trail, close to where the fire may have started.  No way out!

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And no one knew they were stranded.

The helicopters had moved on to warn others.  The group decided to move to a clear area at Stagecoach Vineyards which happened to be near vineyard manager Esteban’s home where they still had cell service.  

 

I sent my kids a text then called them to let  them know what was going on.  Casey and Kelly deserved to know their dad was in serious danger. They would never have forgiven me if something happened to him, and I hadn’t warned them.

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Kelly, as it turned out, had her phone turned off for the night, so she did not get my messages until the following morning. 

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Casey, who is a Los Angeles City Firefighter, immediately hung up and called Bob to get the GPS coordinates from his cell phone. With those coordinates he called someone he works with at the department’s command center. Casey told his contact about the people stranded near a fast moving fire in Napa, gave him the coordinates and asked him to contact the Cal Fire Commander in Napa with the information to rescue his dad and the others. 

 Whenever Casey was not out on calls we talked on the phone during the night.  Both of us feared the worst, but neither said what we were really thinking.  Friends from Napa had told us the fire was huge, and the winds the strongest anyone had seen in recent memory.  Bob told us, in our last conversation, the fire was raging right toward him. It was excruciating not having more information.

 

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Atlas Fire    Napa Valley Register

Earlier my friend, Carolyn, called me from the deck of her home in west Napa as soon as she saw the fire across the valley.  She was supposed to join me, along with several of our friends, at my home in Truckee the following day and knew Bob was home alone. A childhood friend, she’s has known Bob all his life. She was watching the fire scream across the mountain at an unbelievable pace and worried about him.  She stayed on the phone with me, off and on, most of the night giving me much needed emotional support.  Many of my Napa friends texted me throughout the night with words of encouragement and prayers for Bob’s safety.

When we talked, I told Casey how quickly Carolyn could see fire spreading and it wasn’t looking good for Bob’s evacuation. Unknown-4

To be continued…

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