Report From The Fire Zone: A Visit To Napa Venues

The Napa-Santa Rosa area is recovering from the worst fire in California history with hundreds of thousands of acres burned and at least 40 deaths.

But there is a spot of good news: Not much has really changed for the music venues in the area.

– Napa
Thank you, first responders

This reporter was invited to view the damage, or lack thereof, of the music venues of Napa after the devastating fires of early October. The invite, from publicist Tom Fuller, who not only handles press for the BottleRock Napa festival but also various food & wine businesses in the city, made it clear: “Come up here, we’ll smoke a cigar, have a beer and I’ll show you how little is damaged.”

There will be no lighthearted sentences in this post. The fires of Northern California have been devastating to businesses but more importantly to lives. There are chilling stories of people trapped in their homes. There are dozens still missing and the search and rescue teams are just now beginning to recover the bodies. A friend of a friend spent two days on a roof. Her father was evacuated from one assisted living facility, which burned down, to another one, where he was also evacuated from before that one too burned down. This reporter’s brother’s house in Petaluma, which is nowhere near the fire zone, had four RVs out front filled with evacuees from Santa Rosa.

– Napa
The hills outside Napa show the edge of the fire line. Vineyards made for a natural fire break.

And yet, the image of the fire and the reality are two different things. A portion of Santa Rosa was hit hard, but the city overall continued to function as any city would. Napa, the city, was not hit at all. Yes, it was horrifically windy during the fire and one shift could have carried a fireball right into the middle of Napa, but it didn’t happen. Only one vineyard got damaged. In fact, the vineyards that surround Napa acted as a natural fire breaker. The fires literally stopped right at the edge of the vineyards. Everything on the hillsides, of course, was destroyed.

The visit was eye-opening because the city is doing fine; it just needs people to occupy it. We visited Napa’s three venues: Silo’s Jazz Club, the 150-capacity Blue Note Napa, and the 863-capacity Uptown Theatre. During the Oct. 21 visit, a Saturday, Silo’s had a surf band, Uptown Theatre had Howie Mandel, and the Blue Note was still closed for repairs.

Blue Note Napa
– Blue Note Napa

Blue Note owner Ken Tesler, who lives on the hillside and watched the fire get uncomfortably close to his family, stressed that there has not been a single cancellation, only postponements. He had to postpone David Sanborn, but is considering opening around the time of Halloween (the fire ruined his plans for a big anniversary show). He credited the New York contingency of Blue Note with helping reroute his postponements.

The venue itself was nowhere near the fire, relatively speaking, but it took the brunt of soot damage.

– Napa
The Blue Note, Ken Tesler

“This is the first day where I can’t smell it in here, where I don’t have to get the stench out of my nostrils,” Tesler said.

Oxbow Public Market
– Oxbow Public Market

The building is older and does not have a modern HVAC system, so the walls were blackened with toxic soot – toxic because it included plastics and other residue from burned houses.

“I don’t want to tell you how much it cost to clean this place up,” he said, “but we’re looking at about six figures.”

Again, it’s a 150-capacity club.

– Napa

Modern HVAC systems appear to be the unsung heroes of Napa. Jim Brandt, owner of the Napa General Store, credited his system with keeping the doors open. The same appears to be true for the Oxbow Public Market, one of the city’s hubs for food and wine, as well as Silo’s and Uptown.

The citizenry is spreading the meme “Spend it, don’t send it” because Napa dearly needs the return of tourism and does not need donations. Brandt noted that Saturday was the first day where he sensed the return of customers. Normally, October – harvest season – is the best month for the city but apparently the perception is that the city is burned down. Instead, it’s like going to Disneyland during the Super Bowl: It’s great, with plenty of elbow room.

Mandel performed to a nearly full room. Apparently, several ticket-holders were under the impression that the theatre would be inaccessible. Again, Napa wasn’t hit. He made sure to thank the first responders and was sensitive to the situation but also was pretty damned funny. He deserves credit: he didn’t vote Puddles Pity Part off of “America’s Got Talent.” Good guy.

– Napa
thank you first responders

Napa was filled with banners thanking the first responders. The fairgrounds used for Bottlerock became a housing station for all of the fire trucks and vehicles, and the ground was torn to smithereens. The Napa River Inn, one of the most extravagant hotels in the city, voluntarily turned itself into the fanciest housing station any firefighter could ever hope to see.

However, Santa Rosa, which is one hour away by car, was a different matter entirely. The stories from that city, the loss of life, the devastation of homes and businesses, are horrible and it is not a city with Napa’s reputation as a wine country destination. However, the 1,222-capacity Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, the city’s main venue, was undamaged but barely escaped the fire, with several buildings around it burned down and its entrance way in need of repair. It is still expected to host several upcoming events beginning with Stephen Stills / Judy Collins Nov. 5.

Overall, the interaction with those in Napa appeared to be in good spirits, but the devastation wasn’t too far in the back of anyone’s mind. Tesler, for instance, knew from his background how quickly fires could jump across ditches, how close this event came to ruining the city. However, the fire is done, the smoke has cleared, it’s been cleaned off the walls, and the Blue Note is ready for a Halloween party.

– Silo