Former Mauians affected by fires in California
Jim Klaczak was rustled out of bed at 1:30 a.m. Oct. 9 by first responders telling his Silverado Springs neighborhood in Napa, Calif., to evacuate. Through their window, Klaczak and his wife, Andrea Solari, could see a fire burning on the hills about a quarter-mile away.
The couple grabbed their belongings in the dark, loaded dog Molly in the car and drove to Trinity Prep, where Klaczak is the athletic director.
“When we saw where the fire was and we evacuated, we really truly believed we were going to lose our home,” said Klaczak, a former Lahainaluna and St. Anthony football coach. “We thought there was no way it was going to stop, especially with the way the wind was blowing. We got to the school and thought, ‘This is it.'”
Fortunately, the fire that burned through the nearby Silverado Country Club stopped short of Klaczak and Solari’s residence and, after a week spent in a hotel in American Canyon, the couple was able to return home Saturday.
Many, however, weren’t able to escape. As of Sunday, 40 people have been killed, hundreds have been reported missing and many families have been left without homes as first responders battle more than a dozen blazes that have been burning across Northern California for a week. The fires have scorched 220,000 acres and leveled 5,700 structures, according to The Los Angeles Times.
As the Atlas Fire bore down on Klaczak and Solari’s neighborhood, they heard a series of explosions.
“We were standing outside, the neighbors were getting ready, and you could hear popping all over the place, like bombs,” Klaczak said. “It was everybody’s propane tanks going off.”
Late Oct. 8, former Maui resident Melissa Sands was driving back to Napa after a concert at a Sonoma winery.
“There was debris all over the road, and things were flying through the air like ‘The Wizard of Oz,'” Sands said. “I came over the hill from Sonoma into Napa, and there were helicopters flying, there were sirens going and the hills were glowing.”
Sands drove to the property where she lived with her parents and 4-year-old daughter. No one had told them to evacuate but as the family heard more reports of other fires, they grew concerned. On Tuesday, Sands took her daughter to stay with a friend in Sonoma. Her parents stayed behind to water down the dwellings and gather important documents until they were told to evacuate. Eventually, even Sonoma became unbearable.
“I also left Sonoma because there were ashes falling through the sky,” Sands said. “You couldn’t see very far in front of you. It was like it was foggy, but it was brown, like a brown haze.”
While staying in San Francisco with friends, Sands downloaded an app that allowed her to view real-time satellite images of the area.
“When I first downloaded the app and opened it, it showed this beautiful green picture of (our) property,” Sands said. “I thought, ‘Holy smokes, we got missed.'”
But then Sands kept refreshing the photos, and what she saw made her heart sink.
“It was kind of this moment when everything fell apart,” she said. “The meadow in that image was black. The vegetation was red. It showed where there were things that were burnt. It’s just gray ash. . . . I couldn’t find my parents’ home, the main home, any of the cabins, the carport to what had been my grandmother’s home.”
Through neighbor videos and the app, Sands was able to “pretty much confirm” her fears. Her grandmother’s house and the barn were some of the few structures that appeared intact. Sands’ grandmother purchased the property in 1963. The 70-acre space included six dwellings, including a main house and cabins that Sands and her family rented out. The home was filled with irreplaceable items — artwork by Sands’ father and a grand piano that famous musicians played on at the nightclub her grandmother owned.
“I have one bag,” Sands said. “But I also have my health, and I have my daughter’s safety and my parents are safe. I have an outpouring of support from people I’ve never met.”
Sands also still has her Pilates and gyrotonic business, On Core Studio in St. Helena, the same business she operated in Makawao while living on Maui from 2005 to 2016.
Sands is now staying in a Napa apartment with her daughter and parents. They haven’t been allowed to return to their property yet, and Sands said that she didn’t know what they would do next.
“We have to go there and see what’s left and assess at that point,” she said. “My mom just turned 70. That’s not the project we envisioned undertaking at 70. . . . (My parents) were planning to do a remodel on their house and live their days out there. And now it’s a totally different story.”
With reports that firefighters are getting a handle on the bigger blazes, residents of Northern California are hopeful but wary.
“Our cars are packed. We definitely are on alert right now,” said Sharon Okada, a 1987 Lahainaluna graduate who lives on the outskirts of Santa Rosa. “The winds are helping but, at the same time, knowing there’s a fire literally 3 miles north of us . . . we’re actually kind of worried again.”
Around 2 a.m. Oct. 9, Okada and her fiance were woken by a neighbor yelling for them to pack their stuff. Okada knew another neighbor had three young children. She ran next door and started ringing the bell and pounding on the door.
The neighborhood of about 30 homes was abuzz with people running through the streets alerting one another of the danger. The skies were red, and burning cinders were fluttering into Okada’s yard.
“We were all in our pajamas, and we were half-asleep, but we literally had to grab whatever we could and threw them in the back seat,” Okada said. “We waited to see exactly where the fire was. The good thing was the winds changed direction, so it moved the fire in a different direction. Some people actually did leave. You could hear the tires screeching out of the neighborhood.”
Because evacuation wasn’t mandatory, Okada and her fiance decided to stay to water the areas around their home and watch for looters. Over the past week, vehicles — including an empty Budget rental truck — have been cruising slowly through the neighborhood.
On the flip side, the neighbors have banded together, Okada said.
“We just sit out in the street and start talking about what we can do for each other in case there’s an evacuation,” said Okada, a clinical scientist for Kaiser Permanente who also teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College.
The Tubbs Fire that missed Okada’s home wiped out a nearby neighborhood.
“On the freeway, you can look over and you can see some of the burning buildings,” she said. “What used to be there is no longer there. Just completely ashes.”
Klaczak, who left Maui in 2006 to coach in Texas and eventually California, said that he and his wife were still without gas Sunday night, but the power at their home was back on and the couple was safe.
“This is the first day you can see blue sky,” Klaczak said. “But if you look off in the distance, there’s still smoke everywhere.”
As of Sunday night, the 51,000-acre Atlas Fire north and west of Napa was 65 percent contained, while the 48,600-acre Nuns Fire north and east of Glen Ellen was 40 percent contained and the 44,900-acre Tubbs Fire between Calistoga and Santa Rosa was 60 percent contained.
For updates on the fires, visit fire.ca.gov/general/firemaps.
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.