Chapter 15: August 2020

The Night of 10,000 Lightning Strikes

A Flare Up from the Hennessy Fire

Aug 1-7 2020 People

People are starting to come back to Napa Valley. Tourists and gawkers, construction workers and PGE trucks. It makes me a little freaky. Who are these people? Are they sick? Where have they been? Nine months ago, I'd fight them for counter space at Bistro Jeanty, now, I simply don’t know who they are, nor anybody for that matter. We’ve all become masked people and we don’t bother to reveal ourselves anymore. I've become a masked Napa hermit hogging the beauty of the valley for months not wanting to give it back. And who wouldn't? After twenty years of living in my little vineyard and dealing with thousands of tourists and the noise of cars and trucks all day long, why would I want that back. I don’t.

I read in news reports from Italy and Greece and other destinations where tourism has stopped, that locals are reviving their neighborhoods, fixing things up, living like their grandparents did and loving it. After seven months of quietude, blessed days of calm and peace and quiet sunsets filled with birdsong, I too want this slow-down to continue. Why do we have to go back to that pre-Covid mentality?

Everything seems topsy-turvy, reason seems upside down, society seems a struggle. At my writing table the reflection of myself peering into the laptop shows an editor writing a book concerned about over-consumption in a valley known for it's celebration of consumption, a valley of wealth and power families, of vineyards so manicured and pampered that they produce thousand-dollar bottles of wine. I'm writing a book about living in a vineyard for its seclusion while the world is massively secluding itself from itself. I'm writing a book about the insane increase in modern auto traffic and now all that has stopped. I'm writing a book about the beauties of nature while it’s trying to flick us off the planet like fleas.

It's getting hot.

Aug 16 - 22 The Night of 10000 Lightning Strikes

It starts with a heat bubble stuck in some pattern to the east of us in Arizona, Nevada, and Death Valley, California, where it becomes the hottest anywhere: 130 degrees F. It was hot in Oakville approaching 104 around dinnertime, too hot to be outside, even in the shade. The valley and the vines just shut down around 2pm until the cooling effects of sunset.

And now the heat plume has caused some remnant hurricane to hurl humidity into California with a forecast for thunderstorms. Lightning and thunder and strong gusts of wind, all red flag fire warnings, but a dire forecast because it includes the words California and lightning in the same paragraph. My wife, who has been staying in Palo Alto, drives all the way to Napa on Saturday morning, gets some treasured possessions and abruptly leaves, driving back a few hours later. We tussled a little about me staying in dangerous places but there were no fires at the moment and the lightning storm was still a forecast. The evacuation system in Napa and Sonoma and the surrounding counties has gotten pretty good and I place my trust that after a single warning I could be in the car and out on Silverado Trail highway in about a minute. I would sleep in my clothes that night and the car was packed.

Deep rumbling woke me on Sunday morning at 3am.

There was a huge thunder and light show in the dark. I got up and made coffee and went outside and sat on the porch. The storm was coming from the West and I could follow the radar on my mobile phone while watching it in real time across the valley floor. The view from my little vineyard is quite amazing as you can see the a portion of Mayacamus Mountain range with a 180 view. Tonight, gi-normous lighting bolts were zooming through the clouds above those mountains. The bolts were at least ten miles long with branches of lightning reaching up and down the mountain range. It was amazing. The whole atmosphere was alive pulsating again and again with flashes and thunder and brief tufts of stormy wind.

Then it became powerful as if gaining energy from the menacing clouds stretched out over the night horizon. That crack of lightning, that sound you hear when you're too close to a lightning strike, that was now over me somehow and the flashes of light were seconds apart and continuous, one after the other. They never touched ground but became a swirling light show. I moved my rocking chair on the porch to a spot that seemed protective. Then the mass of the storm came over the mountains and into the Napa Valley, moving rapidly east. It was coming right at me. I was to be in the direct middle of the most massive lightning storm I had ever seen.

Then it began raining and I remembered thinking, rain in August? I watched the showers scrape across the valley lit by the flashes inside the clouds. It was if the clouds had lights inside them and someone was flipping the switch off and on, making the clouds flash in a moonless sky. Then my neighbors’ house lights started to go out across the valley like a wave and I watched the blackout roil up onto me. There was a loud bang and then the electricity went out.

The rain looked silver in the flashing light and I watched the large angry drops strike the vineyard, heavy at first, then it stopped suddenly, became still, and then another burst of heavy showers. No hail, thank god, please not just after veraison. Then the light show of the storm was directly above so I could hear it all around but not actually see the lightning itself, just the constant rumbling of things happening. The rain stopped and I saw that St. Helena was getting it, huge dark clouds lit from within were flashing all over Spring Mountain.

Lights everywhere were off. Even Napa, far to the south, lacked its typical ambient glow. I went inside to get some coffee before it got cold and I could see that some windows had been open and things had blown around on the living room floor. I was surprised to see it was after 5am. I had been outside on the porch for two hours!

The exact instant I returned to the rocking chair, a huge bolt of lightning came down on the other side of the mountain I occupy. It was like Jack's beanstalk only it was a column of light that seemed to reached far, far above into the cumulus ether. I saw it out of the side of my eye and by the time I turned my head the strike was over but the boom was happening, a vibration so strong it rattled things on the porch and made them move.

I ran cautiously to the back side of the house where I could see up the slope of the mountain, afraid that the column of light had struck in my backyard. There was neither fire nor light up the hillside as far as I could see, just that strange dank smell of electrified air. I stayed several minutes scanning the lands certain that the huge strike had touched ground but then went back to my rocking chair and watched the tail of the storm go up and over me. Dawn came and I sat down and typed this out at my writer’s table.

The electricity was still out. The valley was absolutely still. It was so quiet that getting coffee ready on the outdoor propane barbecue seemed noisy. The brief rain had cleaned the dust off things and the sun was now poking out of a few residual clouds. The coffee soon became fried eggs and sausage and I was thinking of going back to sleep with a nice full stomach when the sirens came. Far off on the Trail, somewhere around Yountville coming directly north. Soon caravans of trucks, each with its own siren, drove by over the course of the next hour. It's the sight you never want to see – dozens of CalFire trucks rumbling up the Trail. Advanced CalFire pickup trucks and then more trucks with emergency lights, some with water tanks, some with equipment on back. The Highway Patrol and Napa County Sheriff were sending in units from other counties. It's Sunday morning under sunny skies in August and the Trail is full of emergency trucks going north. Not a good sign.

I went online and visited my favorite CalFire sites from the last two years. Sure enough, a fire had started on the other side of the mountain from me, right where that lightning bolt had landed, near Lake Hennessy. It was just a few miles away as the crow flies. I went outside and climbed up the slope of my vineyard in order to see more of the valley northward. If there was smoke it was going eastward. I couldn't see anything.

My wife who daily trolls the Internet was beside herself and rightly so. We texted back and forth and I sent lots of pictures to confirm that here in Oakville, a few miles on the other side of the mountain, everything was peachy except that the electricity was out. And that was it. It was a warm day but not as hot as before the storm. I promised her that I would watch all the evacuation notices and the fire (what else would I do) and that I would leave at a moment's warning.

The fire didn't come west. It was going Northeast. Still they choose to kept the power out at my house for unexplainable reasons. Just down the Trail everyone had theirs. I spent the day driving either to Yountville to park near a wi-fi spot or to Meadowood to sit in the parking lot and connect there. When I went to Yountville I could finally see the plumes of smoke that I couldn't see from my vineyard, rising behind my mountain blowing east. It was hellish, rising in thick white-grey plumes thousands of feet high.

Yountville seems unfazed. Stragglers and tourists are still coming in their cars, dining outside, trying to be normal in the middle of a Pandemic while the hillsides are burning and plumes of smoke are now quite visible. I take a quick walk while in town but can hear the trucks and fire engines and first responders going up and down Highway 29, right next to town. Their flashing lights spin unfathomed enormity: the return of the fires, the return of smoke.

Aug 22-31. Lightning Complex Fire LNU)

The Lake Hennessey fire is becoming one of the largest fires in California history, starting last Sunday morning and burning through Napa's backcountry, a large rural area to the Northeast full of ravines and gullies, steep and difficult to cover. I had heard that CalFire was so decimated by the virus that half the force was missing and they really couldn't fight the fire. The reality is that the lightning strikes were all across Northern California, causing some 250 separate fires in Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano, and Yolo counties. And so The Henessey Fire becomes one of the many dominant fires in the Lightning Complex Fire. The whole state seems in flames. Locally it never approaches western Napa Valley and the Silverado Trail. Instead it decimates Berryessa Estates and Spanish Flat, deep in that rural area popular to cyclists.

It’s been an air war without the needed responders on the ground. Ceaseless days of aircraft and helicopters that to me growls with a distant rumble. As the week unfolds they have saved many small encampments of houses and people caught in the back woods, all in the throes of evacuation. I see the evacuees in town or out on the Trail, dusty caravans of vans and trucks, some pulling animal trailers, looking for places to camp, to sleep, to rest. The camps with animal rescues are full but I read that all the farm animals are behaving themselves in their temporary new pastures.

As if things weren't rough enough, PGE keeps turning off the electricity in a round of rolling blackouts engineered to keep California supplied with power for the next week. It happens to me twice, a day apart, with a then third power outage due to a locally blown condenser or something. And sometime in there, the local wi-fi tower burnt up and I lost internet connections for several days whether the electric blackouts came or not. Then the AT&T cellular service started to act up, not connecting or very faintly. For days I struggled without having a normal day. My office job was riddled with meetings I couldn't attend.

I sat in my car a lot. I sat in it to charge my phone and sometimes I sat in it with the engine running with the air conditioning on. Having mobile phone service and a charging strategy is life saving and I highly recommend you have an emergency plan no matter where you live. I used it to connect to Elizabeth, to connect to work, to watch not only the virus but now the largest fire in California history get bigger than anything we have ever seen.

After days of electrical mishaps they gradually all coalesce just in time for the smoke. The fire may have gone Northeast but the smoke has now moved into the valley. It seeps everywhere. God, I hate it. For days the amount of smoke in the air is growing, thickening, its pungent acid crawls down your throat irritating pathways and lungs. You can feel the particles of carbon in the air. The sky becomes hazy. Visibility shrinks and I can barely see the line of trees that mark Napa River down on the valley floor and soon I can’t even see the Trail. Everything is covered in a white ash. When I'm inside the car charging the phone I can turn the wipers on and it looks like snow.

There's a different mask advised for smoke, it's the N94 with the valve right in the middle of the mask but it's not recommended for the virus because it lets your aerosol spray out of the mask. So I use a combination of lethal virus and lethal smoke masks when I venture to the grocery or for an occasional walk. But the smoke is so bad that I start to wear the N94 while in the house. That's all you can do during smoke storms, stay inside, occupy yourself, stand up and go sit in the other room, occupy yourself some more. I start to lose my appetite just because everything has a smokey taste. The house, the bedding, the couch, it all smells like smoke.

I start wearing googles when I go outside now, ones that surround the eyes and the bridge of your nose because my eyes are constantly red and bloodshot. There’s not much to do outside but hand water the garden, keep the bird baths full, and sometimes just sit on the writing porch and stare out at the smoke in disbelief. How are we going to last until the November rains?

There are other worries that occupy the wineries and the vineyard managers. Smoke taint in the grapes is a viniculturist term for when the chemicals in smoke get into the molecules of the grape cluster. Usually wildfires burn in October or early November and that’s after harvest so smoke taint hasn't been a big worry even in these last fiery years. However, this year, 2020, may be different. I've been told it takes two solid weeks of consistent thick smoke to produce the taint inside the berry. Once in the winery you might be able to filter the taint down or even away, but that also filters out many of the molecules that give wine its taste.

One day I go to Yountville for a walkie. The smoke is killing this little town. Covid pushed the tables outside and now the smoke is simply pushing people away. That ashy taste is affecting everything. Who wants their plate delivered and in a few minutes have a fine layer of ash on it? Many of the shops and store fronts have simply closed. Some have left and their spaces are now vacant. There are a few locals out, walking mid-day, and the occasional determined tourist couple, riding their rented bikes without any kind of mask protection.

I cut my walk in half because I could feel the smoke in my throat and later that afternoon I coughed up some mucous. I didn't go out for days afterwards, thinking, if the fire doesn't kill me, the smoke will, and if the smoke doesn't kill me the virus will, and if the virus doesn't kill me, boredom will. Then the temperature rose. And I must tell you this, that nothing is worse than a smoky hot day. This smoke inversion happens for two days, making the breezes pick up giving more oxygen to the LNU, making more smoke for the hot winds to dissipate. The old farmhouse, tired and worn, just can't keep up with this climatic storm of heat and smoke.

On Saturday I leave for Palo Alto where my wife, son, and cat are getting on. Only it's worse there, evidently closer, as the wind flows, to a source of smoke from another LNU fire in the Santa Cruz mountains. I stay for a few days and watch the AirQuality app on my mobile phone. I want to go walking but can't. The smoke here is really bad. I want to work in my garage studio but can't because it has no filtration system. I want to eat like I'm in the big city but everything is closed because of the virus.

The fires in Napa become more contained and the air quality is actually better in Napa than in the smoke-filled bay peninsula. So cat and Pat pack up the car again and restlessly return to the vineyard. We never see blue sky the entire cloudless 90 miles.