Napa County fire survivors balance risk with desire to return to Atlas Peak

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On a hot September afternoon, Karla Bailey climbed the steep driveway to her Atlas Peak property in a Liberty Jeep, stopping at a trailer where her dog, Gunner, greeted her.

Bailey, 77, lives in the trailer on the mountain northeast of Napa during the reconstruction of the house she and her husband lost in the Atlas Blaze, the largest of the firestorms in October 2017 which ravaged Wine Country.

When complete, the two-story, 2,100-square-foot home will offer stunning views through floor-to-ceiling windows, including on a clear day, Mount Tamalpais, the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco approximately 50 miles away.

Larry Bailey won’t see it. In January, he succumbed to a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, leaving his 49-year-old wife to face loss and the challenge of rebuilding herself. This has not been easy. The retired physical education teacher was recently diagnosed with heart disease which she suspects to be stress-related.

“It just shook me up,” she said.

She is not alone. Across the fire-ravaged mountain in southeast Napa County, locals occupy an uncertain reality in temporary trailers that dot the scarred landscape. They fight over scarce labor, fight insurance companies to recoup their financial losses, fight county officials over permits, and fight their own eager need to feel settled again.

Several Atlas Peak residents are in the process of rebuilding for the second time, after losing their homes in a 1981 daytime fire that roared through similar territory. Their reasons for rebuilding again vary, but are essentially rooted in the human need to connect to a place that feels familiar to them.

“We are at peace here,” said an Atlas Peak owner as she stood on the deck of the house she and her husband are rebuilding for the second time.

But that peace seems fragile, and the woman – who asked that she and her husband not be identified because she did not want to draw attention to the couple’s situation – recognized unease whenever she felt smoke.

The Atlas fire in 2017 was a monstrous beast, burning nearly 52,000 acres, destroying 783 structures and killing six people. Authorities pinned the ignition source to a power line that was struck twice, once by a large tree branch and again when an entire tree fell on it.

Karla Bailey was awakened on the night of October 8, 2017, by a phone call from a friend who lives in the valley. He told her to get out immediately. The friend is a general contractor who is now overseeing the rebuilding of Bailey’s house.

The process has been long and difficult, as it has been for fire victims across Wine Country. Bailey said she was worried about going bankrupt without having access to more of her insurance money to complete the work on the house.

Other residents have expressed similar concerns.

“If we knew then what we were going to go through with the county and our lenders, we never would have tried this,” said Mike Collins, a semi-retired Napa County Sheriff’s Assistant, while relaxing in a trailer. of 38 feet on his Property of Atlas Peak.

Collins, 56, and his wife Karen paid $ 1.2 million in 2017 for their 11-acre property, which included a house, garage and swimming pool. The couple and other family members moved into the property in June. Four months later, the Atlas fire destroyed almost everything.

The couple now live in the trailer, maneuvering in the tight space while a construction crew works on the construction of their new home. In the meantime, they continue to pay $ 4,600 a month for a mortgage on a house that doesn’t exist and fight their lender for more of the insurance payment.

Collins said the lender refused to release the full amount of insurance money until construction on their new home was at least 50 percent complete. The determination of this threshold is a subject of permanent dispute. Without this money, the couple plan to dip into their savings to pay what is owed to them.

Mike Collins said the lender “basically expects you to build half of your house with your own pocket,” which given Napa County’s high construction costs can add up quickly.

Collins also expressed anger at county officials for asking the couple to spend thousands of dollars on permits and reports they deem unnecessary or redundant. As an example, he cited a soil engineering report that cost $ 20,000.

Collins said he believed the county was “updating their records at our expense.”

To be fair, not all Atlas Peak residents feel this way. The couple who asked not to be identified said they were treated fairly by the county.

Over a cafe in downtown Napa, County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza, whose district includes Atlas Peak, expressed empathy for the residents who have lost their homes. Pedroza and his family were forced to evacuate their Silverado Springs home inside the venerable Silverado Country Club resort area when the fire broke out. The house survived the fire.


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