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Calistoga a ghost town after mandatory evacuation order

SF Gate logo SF Gate 10/12/2017 By Marissa Lang, Trisha Thadani, Hamed Aleaziz and Steve Rubenstein

John Palmer, left, who escaped as flames surrounded his home, covers his eyes while waiting to return to his burned residence on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, in Glen Ellen, Calif. At right is a resident who declined to be identified.

John Palmer, left, who escaped as flames surrounded his home, covers his eyes while waiting to return to his burned residence on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, in Glen Ellen, Calif. At right is a resident who declined to be identified.
© Noah Berger/Special To The Chronicle

Calistoga, where people go to get away, seems to have gone away itself. The mud and mineral baths and the Merlot are still there. But the people who traffic in it, by and large, aren’t.

Before most of California had awakened Wednesday, police and firefighters were telling residents and tourists to pack up and hit Highway 29, due south, fast. An evacuation advisory for much of the town came down about 3:30 a.m., and residents north of Grant Street woke to knocks at their doors.

The winds are shifting, officers said. The Tubbs Fire, which had killed at least 13 people since starting Sunday night, could be on its way. About half of the city’s 5,000 residents left quickly, while others stayed behind, hoping the fire would continue to spare them.

But by 3 p.m., evacuation was no longer optional. It was mandatory. “PLEASE LEAVE IMMEDIATELY ... TAKE YOUR PETS AND MEDICATION,” read the alert. Within 30 minutes, a stream of cars took to Grant Street and hung a right on Highway 29.

Similar scenes played out across Wine Country and beyond as a series of fires lurched into new areas. Later Wednesday, 30 miles to the southeast, authorities issued an optional evacuation advisory for some of the city of Napa’s eastern neighborhoods.

Captain Mike Harrison of Santa Rosa fire directs his team of firefighters in containing a small roadside fire in the Oakmont neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Ca. on Tuesday October 10, 2017. Massive wildfires ripped through Napa and Sonoma counties, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses on Monday morning.

Captain Mike Harrison of Santa Rosa fire directs his team of firefighters in containing a small roadside fire in the Oakmont neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Ca. on Tuesday October 10, 2017. Massive wildfires ripped through Napa and Sonoma counties, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses on Monday morning.
© Michael Macor, The Chronicle
This owed to the approach of a separate fire, the Atlas Fire, and many people took the option to leave.

Calistoga, in the northwest of Napa County, is a community known not for anxiety but the relief of it. Travelers come for the baths and the wine and pay big money for each. A mud bath is said to be at least as therapeutic as any wine bottle at the high-end restaurants in town.

On Wednesday, the spas were closed. The restaurants were shut. The hotels were deserted. Smoke and ash drifted from the sky. Cars were gone. Downtown Calistoga looked to be preparing for the worst.

Calistoga Spa said its $99 mud baths were “closed due to the fire,” and the Golden Haven Spa said its $99 mud baths had “ceased operation until further notice.” Police closed roads in every direction for about 10 miles around.

Smoldering ruins lined other major roadways in Napa County. Up in the hills, where the Tubbs Fire roared through Sunday night, fallen trees, wires and power lines littered roadways. Many houses were no longer structures but tangles of charred remains strewn over scorched earth.

Sandy McNair, 63, rode his red bicycle through Calistoga.

“It’s eerie down there,” he said after he returned to his home in the evacuation zone. By the afternoon, McNair had left town in his truck, taking his bicycle with him.

Gianni Busato, 52, said he was staying put. He had spent the day watering his roof, his yard, his fence and everything in between. He was in good spirits, joking as he worked, drinking a beer afterward.

Busato and his neighbors on Arch Way had loaded their vehicles with clothes, food and their most prized possessions, just in case. The cars were parked facing their escape route, keys in ignitions.

“We know that if the time comes when we have to go, we’ll go,” said J.J. Stivers, 55, who spent 12 years as a Calistoga firefighter. “But in the meantime, we’re going to wet the hell out of this place and see what happens.”

The police, who told everyone to leave, weren’t arresting anyone who stayed. They spent much of the day marking the streets and sidewalks in front of homes with orange and pink spray paint. A giant zero meant no one was home. A giant X meant someone was home but refused to leave. And a giant check mark meant that someone was there and planned to evacuate. The marks in front of the dwellings of the faithful gave the streets of Calistoga an Old Testament look.

Busato said he’d leave when Stivers, the retired firefighter, and his wife, Theresa, left. And Stivers said he wasn’t leaving. He was eating pot roast instead.

Then, around 7:30 p.m., Stivers changed his mind. And Busato changed his, too. The wind was predicted to kick up to 50 mph overnight, and Stivers said he didn’t want to stay up into the wee hours, keeping vigil.

Evacuee Jorge Torres sits on a cot after spending the night at the Petaluma Community Center in Petaluma, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. Jorge Torres lost his mobile home in a fire that ravaged areas in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Rosa.

Evacuee Jorge Torres sits on a cot after spending the night at the Petaluma Community Center in Petaluma, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. Jorge Torres lost his mobile home in a fire that ravaged areas in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Rosa.
© Gabrielle Lurie, The Chronicle

So the neighbors piled into their cars and headed off to spend the night in an RV that Stivers had parked in a field outside of town and, with any luck, out of harm’s way.

Because fires threatened both ends of the Napa Valley, even centrally located Yountville, where no community evacuations had been ordered by Wednesday, was deserted. Throughout the town center, many stores were closed, and a few people walked around wearing face masks.

At the Veterans Home of California, a few residents ambled around the campus. Some sat outside in the smoky air, while others waited for a campus bus. The night before, around 130 elderly and medically fragile veterans were relocated to other skilled-nursing facilities.

To the south, swaths of Solano County that had ben evacuated over the past couple of days were smoky and desolate Wednesday as officials warned of the imminent arrival of gusty winds.

The roads around Fairfield were eerily empty and were being tended by folks from afar. A Hayward police officer was patrolling the streets, and a fire truck from Salem, Ore., was dousing the still smoldering patches of earth.

Front gate to a property along WarnSprings Rd. in Glen Ellen, CALIFORNIA, USA 9 Oct 2017. Multiple fires that erupted in Napa, Sonoma, Calistoga and the Santa Rosa area have burned homes and wineries. Mandatory evacuations have be displaced hundreds of residents through out the area.

Front gate to a property along WarnSprings Rd. in Glen Ellen, CALIFORNIA, USA 9 Oct 2017. Multiple fires that erupted in Napa, Sonoma, Calistoga and the Santa Rosa area have burned homes and wineries. Mandatory evacuations have be displaced hundreds of residents through out the area.
© Peter DaSilva, Special To The Chronicle

At Glashoff Farms, a historic blackberry farm on Williams Road, the plants were still there. The horses and cows were there. But the Glashoffs appeared to have cleared out.

Near Wooden Valley Road northwest of Fairfield, an area where acres of land burned down to nothing on Tuesday night, David Capp drove an ATV around his vineyard to survey the damage.

“These are a complete loss,” he said, as he stopped his truck to point out vines with crumpled leaves.

Capp, who runs Capp Heritage Vineyard with his family, said those vines once held the promise of “A grade” Cabernet and Merlot. But now, he said, he’ll have to yank them out of the ground, plant new vines and wait at least five years for them to grow.

Marissa Lang, Trisha Thadani, Hamed Aleaziz and Steve Rubenstein are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: mlang@sfchronicle.com, tthadani@sfchronicle.com, haleaziz@sfchronicle.com, srubenstein@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @marissa_jae, @trishathadani, @haleaziz, @SteveRubeSF

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