Fire prevention has never been an easier sell in Napa

A silver lining to so many destructive wildfires: people have stopped saying "someday" to clear brush now from around their homes. 

"It's similar to the Oakland Hills 20 years ago, you find behavior is going to change," said Napa Fire Captain Steve Becker.

Becker and a Station 1 engine took KTVU for a ride into the hills of Alta Heights, an older neighborhood near downtown Napa.

It is woodsy and full of older homes, and the roads become narrow and winding as they climb to a ridge east of the city.

On the night of the Oct. 8 firestorm, Alta Heights was threatened by the Atlas Fire. 

Instead, shifting winds steered it toward the Silverado Trail, where scores of homes were destroyed.

"Subconsciously people say, 'that's not going to happen to me,'" said Becker, "but often that's not the case. It happened to us." 

Which is why, in this early and active fire season, Napa is seeing more compliance on creating defensible space.  

Becker showed an Alta Heights home as an example. 

Trees around the property have been removed or pruned.

Limbs have been thinned from the ground up to eliminate fuels that act like a ladder to the treetop.

No vegetation pushes up against the house. 

There is a 30 foot buffer Cal Fire likes to call "lean, clean and green," plus 70 more feet of land mowed to the ground. 

But across the street: an untamed slope of dry grass.

That is the light flashy fuel firefighters talk about, that create taller flames.

And anyone who lives on a hill should consider adding 100 feet to their defensible space. 

"Fire burns much more aggressively and much rapidly up hill, " explained Captain Becker, "about 16 times faster on a hill depending on conditions, plus the radiant heat pre-heats everything ahead of it. "

Cruising Alta Heights, there are households that have taken precautions, alongside those with significant vegetation overgrowth.

"We're still faced with those folks who haven't done anything," noted Napa firefighter Mitch Caldwell, "so some have due diligence and get it done, but others feel they can't afford it or whatever, and are going to roll the dice." 

Napans don't have to look far to be reminded: the Atlas Fire destroyed almost 800 structures, and killed six  people. 

"The deputy Fire Marshal is up here every other week making sure everybody trims weeds, " said Alta Heights resident Rich Hancock. 

His new custom home at one of the highest elevations is built to the strictest fire-prevention standards.
Windows, walls, roof, vegetation, all meet a fire code for urban-wildland locations. 

Hancock acknowledges it was expensive, but adds peace of mind.   

"We have a canyon on either side, they call it a chimney," he explained, " so the updraft comes very fast, and a spark would fly right up these valley areas and we would all be in trouble."  

Only one area of Hancock's property had a fire-flaw, which Captain Becker pointed out.

The home is landscaped with bark, spread up to the sides of the house.

Bark and mulch are flammable, and in the Silverado Country Club, homes that looked fine had fire in their walls, which had started from smoldering bark. 

Gravel, says Becker, is a much better ground-cover option.