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.


Peter Kilkus is the publisher of the Lake Berryessa News and president of the Lake Berryessa Chamber of Commerce. He was a senior manager at DSC Communications Corporation’s Optilink Division in Petaluma and a vice president at Advanced Fibre Communications in Petaluma when it went public, pillars of a North Bay tech cluster that was once called Telecom Valley.

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.

Hennessey Fire

Started: Aug. 17

Acres burned: 305,651

Fatalities: 5 (3 in Napa County and 2 in Solano County)

Containment: 98%

It’s part of the LNU Lightning Complex fire that includes the 55,209-acre Walbridge and 2,360-acre Meyers fires in west Sonoma County that are 97% and 100% contained, respectively. Total structures destroyed by all three blazes are 1,491, and 232 have been damaged.

Source: Cal Fire, Sept. 14, 7 p.m.

Within one day, the Hennessey Fire raged up and over the hills around Lake Berryessa and destroyed large parts of the community.  (Peter Kilkus / Lake Berryessa News)
Within one day, the Hennessey Fire raged up and over the hills around Lake Berryessa and destroyed large parts of the community. (Peter Kilkus / Lake Berryessa News)


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.

Power is being restored around the reservoir, with hopes all will have electricity later this month. (Peter Kilkus / Lake Berryessa News)
Power is being restored around the reservoir, with hopes all will have electricity later this month. (Peter Kilkus / Lake Berryessa News)

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.

PG&E crews swarmed the area installing hundreds of new power poles in less than a week. Power was finally restored to the Berryessa Highland residential area on Sept. 2, about two weeks after it was lost in the original lightning storm, but other areas may yet take weeks to be restored. The official PG&E estimate is that all power should be restored to the region by Sept. 20.

My house, the Lake Berryessa News headquarters, survived the fire due to my son’s well-engineered system of a 5,000-gallon water tank and generator-driven industrial sprinklers all around the periphery of our house. We now have generator power (8 gallons of gas per day), well-water, internet, WiFi, TV and air conditioning. We are aware of how fortunate we are.

As of Sept. 5, dozens of PG&E trucks carrying pole-digging equipment and power poles are moving back and forth on my rural road. They are supported by many helicopters flying over my house ferrying equipment to the repair sites in the hills.

Napa County stepped up to provide immediate support with local assistance centers in the Berryessa Highlands and at the county's Health & Human Services campus. The state was declared a federal disaster area, and FEMA is on site to provide emergency resources and long-term financial aid. Thirty-year fixed-rate loans at 1.5% are available to qualified fire victims.

As with the last fires here in Napa County, the big issue will be the response of insurance companies to the challenges of helping their clients as quickly as possible. And as last time, people are finding out that many insurance companies are not particularly responsive.

As most North Bay Business Journal readers are aware, one of the largest segments of the American economy is, ironically again, FIRE: finance, insurance and real estate. Since the present economic system is a cult of predatory capitalism, FIRE is in the business of making money — not helping people.

Some of my neighbors are receiving excellent customer service from reputable insurance companies, but some are not. A good friend had just sold his house in Spanish Flat a few weeks ago.

The buyers were Silicon Valley people trying to escape the COVID crisis. They requested a two-week extension on their closing, which my friend allowed. The next day, his house burned to the ground and he lost everything — including signed copies of movie scripts he had worked on with Robin Williams.

Unfortunately, for some reason he had only been able to get homeowners insurance, at more than $4,000 a year, from an out-of-state company. That company, affiliated with Lloyd’s of London, first gave him a paperwork runaround and is now disputing his claim because his house supposedly did not meet the company’s standards for fire protection — which they had never shared with him. This is an unconscionable business practice.

Recovery — long term

In the aftermath of this disaster there a several business questions to be addressed. For example, will private insurance companies be able to continue to offer fire insurance coverage.

Even after the fires two years ago most companies either canceled homeowner’s insurance coverage or more than doubled their homeowner policy premiums in the Lake Berryessa region. In response Napa county built two local fire stations in the Berryessa Highlands and Berryessa Estates. Companies then lowered their premiums.

But with the extent of the present California disaster, will they cancel all fire coverage as happened many years ago with earthquake insurance. The state had to step in with the California Earthquake Authority. Will a similar agency be created for fire coverage?

A more important question to many of us who have worked long and hard on the revitalization of Lake Berryessa is whether the fire will have any impact on Napa County’s willingness to continue with the signed managing partner agreement and get the bids out soon.

For rational business people who understand the future recreational value of the lake as described in detail in the Ragatz report “Lake Berryessa: An Untapped Resort Development Opportunity” the results of the fire should not make an impact on their decision. The resorts will be built on the lakeshore and made as fire safe as modern technology and the latest safety codes can make them — virtually bulletproof to wildfires.

This view was validated recently by the Napa County supervisors. The supervisors interviewed for the original North Bay Business Journal article were positive in their outlook for the future of Lake Berryessa. They apparently still are.

On Aug. 18 — ironically, the day the fires began — the Board of Supervisors agreed to create a Lake Berryessa concessions manager position to oversee the resort sites. The next steps were to be filling that position and inviting proposals from potential private sector concessionaires to both redevelop and operate the resorts. How quickly the county seeks bids is up to the Board of Supervisors.

Board of Supervisors Chair Diane Dillon in a recent interview said that she doesn’t think the Hennessey Fire will keep the county from reaching this goal.

“I think there are still more positives than otherwise in terms of why people would come to Lake Berryessa,” she said. “That landscape does look different,” Dillon said. “But when you look at other places where fire has occurred, in 2017, 2018 or even 2019, it springs back pretty readily.”

Dillon said that optimally, renovation work at the resorts could still begin next spring. There wouldn’t have been any construction this year even without the fire, she said.

Opportunity, irony, tragedy, recovery: The Lake Berryessa business cycle appears to have returned to the opportunity phase — hopefully a long-lived one.

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