While the Rocky Fire continues to rage just north of Napa – take a gander at the Los Angeles Times’ excellent coverage for updates – let’s take a look back at one of the worst fires in Napa County history, the Atlas Peak fire of 1981.
The 1981 fire was the result of the merging of four arson fires. The first fire was reported at 1:30pm on Monday, June 22, and by 2:45 four were confirmed – two on Soda Canyon and two on Silverado Trail, with a fifth confirmed later. By Monday evening the fires had burned through 23,000 acres – 5% of the county’s land area – caused $36 million in damage, destroyed 65 structures, and injured 11 people. The fires turned “Napa County’s tinder eastern foothills into a holocaust of incinerated luxury and middle income homes, blackened timber, and charred livestock, game, and pets.” It was so intense that one firefighter shouted into his truck’s microphone “It’s really bad – I’m getting out of here – my shoes are melting.”
Later that afternoon, arson investigators located a pair of “timed” incendiary devices near the Trail. According to Captain Darrell Bressler in an article in the New York Times, “The devices were matchbooks in which slow-burning cigarettes had been stuffed, lighted and apparently tossed from a passing car at spots where two of the four fires that eventually merged into one had started.” No one was ever arrested for setting the blaze. Then Napa County Fire Chief Buron Carniglia said in a 2006 Napa Register retrospective article that “We knew who the dirtbags were but we never had enough evidence to make an arrest. No one would talk.”
Nearly 800 women and men were brought out to fight the fire, half of whom were from 10 correctional facilities and many of the rest were from the California Conservation Corps. “Some 30 fire engines, 24 bulldozers, 15 aerial tankers, and four helicopters have swarmed over the fire.” It was so bad that Governor Jerry Brown made a trip to the county to see the devastation first hand. He declared a state of emergency soon after.
Police officer and Soda Canyon resident Joe Ramos said “I saw the whole damn hill explode. It just literally blew up…All of a sudden it got very yellow outside, there was all kinds of smoke…The wind started sucking back into the fire. The fire was blowing down the far hill toward the house, but the wind was going back into the fire…When the first fire trucks got here, there was nothing they could do. They were telling people to get out, they were just evacuating.” The Ramoses were lucky – their home and livestock survived the inferno, but many of his neighbors lost everything.
Raymond and Maudie Berendsen lost their home on Atlas Peak Road: “We drove through the flames. Cinders were falling on the car. There were dead deer along the road and fallen wires. When we got to the house it was going. The flames were burning my red bedroom rug and drapes. We watched it burn from all angles.” Maudie bemoaned that, “We built that house in 1956. It had all my inherited family possessions, plus my husband’s valuable musical instruments. You know, the labor of love you put in a home. I walked out with only this purse. Even my diamond wrist watches are gone. I said to my husband, ‘Well, we’re starting out like we did when we were first married. We don’t have a dime to our name and only each other.’”
 “Firefighters Stem Napa Valley Blaze,” New York Times, June 25, 1981, http://www.nytimes.com/1981/06/25/us/firefighters-stem-napa-valley-blaze.html
 “A Napa Firestorm,” Napa Register, Special Edition, June 29, 1981.
 Marsha Dorgan and David Ryan, “Fire on the Mountain,” Napa Register, June 22, 2006, http://napavalleyregister.com/news/local/fire-on-the-mountain/article_91228a84-916f-5cf9-9172-4ba3954dc0ed.html.
 “A Napa Firestorm,” June 29, 1981.