Will Napa’s Lake Berryessa recover from the Hennessey Fire?
On Aug. 4, the North Bay Business Journal published a story titled “Napa County’s hidden destination: Will Lake Berryessa’s future shine again?”
It was a very positive review of the potential revitalization of the Lake Berryessa recreational community under the new managing partner agreement between Napa County and the Bureau of Reclamation scheduled to take effect on Nov. 1. The story was filled with optimistic interviews with various business owners at the lake. Marcia Ritz, proprietor of the Spanish Flat General Store, said that people tired of sheltering in place have been coming to the lake in great numbers since March. She said it has been her best year so far in over a decade.
Many of us remember the lake’s better times. Motels, cabins, several restaurants, marinas with boat slips and other amenities dotted the 28-mile-long, 3-mile-wide lake in Napa County. We all hope the new county–bureau partnership will result in positive change and growth.
“Now that the agreement is final, we are moving forward with the county process,” said Molly Rattigan, deputy county executive officer who has been managing Napa County–bureau agreement negotiations for several years. “We plan to send out bidding packages by September.
“It has been too long since we experienced a thriving Lake Berryessa,” said Diane Dillon, chair of the Napa County Board of Supervisors. ”We want to work with the community to restore economic vitality to the region surrounding one of Napa County’s most important recreational areas. We thank the Bureau of Reclamation for working with us and for providing the county the opportunity to bring back vibrant concessions at Lake Berryessa.”
Exactly two weeks later, on Aug. 18, an unprecedented lightning storm caused fires to break out all over the tinder-dry region. Rainfall in the 2019–2020 season was the lowest it had been in more than 22 years. Within one day, the fire raged up and over the hills around Lake Berryessa and destroyed large parts of the community. Positivity was no match for reality.
Heartbreaking stories filled the news media. Most of the Spanish Flat neighborhood burned to the dirt. Although Marcia Ritz’s Spanish Flat Country Store survived, the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa next door was destroyed — including Marcia’s home.
“I’m an artist, I lost all of my artwork, I lost all of my friend’s original art that I had, and everything I owned,” Ritz said. Now, Ritz thinks she’ll have to close her business. “There is no customer base. There are maybe two houses remaining on the hill,” she said, waving her hand to gesture down Berryessa Knoxville Road.
The Spanish Flat residential community had become an inferno of burning rubble. The fire soon raced around the lower part of the lake sped up Steele Canyon Road and burned down about 100 of the 300 homes in the Berryessa Highlands. Everyone interviewed for the original Business Journal upbeat article was now being interviewed in news stories about the tragedy that had struck them so quickly. Breathtakingly sad stories of loss filled the news media.
The biggest tragedy this time compared to the last two times the lake was threatened by wildfire, was the lack of fire suppression support from the air. The huge numbers of fires started at the same time by thousands of lightning strikes simply overwhelmed the available capacity to fight them. Although fire fighters with trucks and bulldozers on the ground did what they could, the fires were often simply allowed to burn.
Recovery — short term
A week after they began the wildfires were extinguished or contained. The region had no electricity due to hundreds of wooden power poles being burned and wires melted. Roads in and out of the region were closed for a week after that to allow Napa County, PG&E, AT&T, and others to clear the roads of downed trees and debris.