Spanish Flat Mobile Villa Fire Aftermath

Napa’s ‘Lake People’ feel stranded, abandoned 

Story by Matthias Gafni, Photos by Jessica Christian

San Francisco Chronicle, December 24, 2020

Spanish Flat Mobile Villa burns

Fire season is over in Northern California, but for many evacuees, especially the poor and vulnerable, the nightmare is only getting worse. The blue-and-yellow notices went up at night, taped to the door of each trailer: “Notice of Closure of Evacuation Facility”. The Chronicle was unable to determine who put up the flyer in September.

The unsigned notes instructed the fire victims to move out within three days and leave the area clean and free of debris. There wasn’t much to leave, just a few old travel trailers and vehicles parked on a dirt strip in the Napa Valley Expo fairgrounds. But the small group of refugees from the LNU Lightning Complex fires understood the message. Somebody wanted them gone. The September eviction deadline came and went. But there have been more. And members of the tight-knit group said they feel a constant pressure to move along. A sense of being unwanted and an eyesore.


Melinda Dominguez wears a mask while sitting outside of her former neighbor Aileen's trailer at the Napa Valley Expo fairgrounds. Dominguez lost her home at Spanish Flat in the LNU Lightning Complex fires. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

While most fire victims in Wine Country have been placed into hotels or temporary housing or have sheltered with relatives, these refugees, through a combination of circumstance and choice, are toughing it out in their makeshift camp. One survivor placed a melted slab of aluminum, dug out of her burned trailer property, in front of her temporary lot, decorating it with ornaments like a macabre Christmas tree. But for this group, there’s little to celebrate this holiday.

Fire season has subsided in Northern California, but for many, especially the poor and vulnerable evacuees, the nightmare is only getting worse. The record-setting season stressed fire personnel and victim aid, as multiple blazes affected communities, some multiple times.

The Napa fairgrounds refugees said they are often derisively called “Lake People,” having lived paycheck to paycheck on the margins of the wealthy region in the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa by Lake Berryessa. They’re unsure if they’ll ever be able to return to their community, which burned Aug. 18, and the dirt lot at Napa Valley Expo is the only home they have.

“They’re shuffling us under a rug. It’s a rich area of Wine Country and they don’t want to see us,” said Kit Ellis, as he took turns sipping a can of Coke and taking a drag off his cigarette, pulling his mask up and down. “Where the hell did all the money go for people who are victims? As soon as the Glass Fire started, they forgot all about Spanish Flat.”

County and fairgrounds officials say they have not threatened to evict the fire refugees, and the county has offered them assistance, including hotel rooms, help with searching for rental units or trailer relocation, support on completing federal relief fund applications, rental assistance funds and other services.

Aileen (who asked to be identified only by her first name) hugs former neighbor Randy Hood, thanking him for saving her life while escaping from a wildfire, as they gather near her temporary trailer alongside former neighbors and fellow fire victims at the Napa Valley Expo Fairgrounds. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The LNU Lightning Complex burned from the hills near the famed Silverado Trail and its wineries all the way to the edges of Vacaville this August. The lightning-sparked blazes combined to scorch more than 360,000 acres over five counties — the fourth largest fire in California history — while destroying almost 1,500 homes and killing six residents. The Glass Fire followed in late September, providing a one-two punch to the Napa Valley region and torching more than 67,000 acres and more than 1,500 homes.

The temporary residents of Napa Valley Expo said they have been repeatedly warned that an eviction from the dirt lot is imminent and to look for alternatives. But they have none. Many have lost jobs due to the pandemic and have underlying conditions making them vulnerable to the virus.

“We no more care to be here than they want us here,” said Michele Quecke, who turned 63 the day the fire burned down her father’s trailer that she inherited. “It is the only place we have. No one else can or will offer us a piece of property where we can park our small trailers until we can rebuild our lives.”

One Thursday in November, Quecke and her Spanish Flat neighbors gathered around two wooden picnic tables squeezed between trailers. They eat breakfast and dinner together at the tables, discuss their prospects and support each other as they struggle to reclaim their lives. They hope the county or its homeless nonprofit or the fairgrounds will let them stay or move them to a more permanent facility with trailer hook-ups and basic amenities while they find their footing. “I hope we can be left alone long enough ... to find a new spot,” Quecke said. “I don’t know how long that will be.”

A Napa County spokeswoman said its outreach workers and the nonprofit that handles homeless issues has approached the group in the past, offering services, resources and assistance. “We reached out and got them in the system,” said spokeswoman Janet Upton. “We’ll send folks out there again and make contact again to see if they want services the community can provide.” The county assisted 1,300 people displaced by the LNU Lightning Complex and Glass fires this summer and many are low-income, she said. “We don’t ask for pay stubs,” Upton said.

The county and its homeless services contractor, Abode Services, both said the victims have not always accepted services offered. The group says few viable options have been offered.


Spanish Flat Mobile Villa assistant manager Daniel Davenport is surrounded by the charred remains of homes and belongings. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

“Both county staff and Abode staff continue to engage and offer services; however, fire survivors do need to work within the system,” Upton said, “which means registering for services with Abode, registering for FEMA, and completing rental assistance program and rental applications.”

The fairgrounds are a separate entity. Joe Anderson, the recently retired Napa Expo CEO who has been helping the organization during the pandemic, said there is no termination date for the fire evacuees to leave. “We’re still allowing them to stay there currently free of charge,” Anderson said. “I’m not sure who has told them they have to leave because nobody has told them they have to leave at this point.”

Smoke churned above the mountains to the west of Spanish Flat on Aug. 18 as the park’s assistant manager, Daniel Davenport, frantically knocked on all 54 units. A lightning strike sparked near Lake Hennessey and the blaze was heading toward the mobile home community tucked into a triangular parcel of land, a short walk from Lake Berryessa. Davenport moved into Unit 45 five years earlier. His wife died in late January, as the first known cases of the contagious disease called COVID-19 hit the United States. “It might’ve been what got her,” the 63-year-old said, remembering his wife crying out how she couldn’t breathe.

The blaze seemed to stall at 2,400 acres, but residents began packing belongings and suddenly spotted flames. “It looked like lava was rolling over the hills,” said Rich Woodard, 58, who lived in a house near the trailer park and 500 yards from a Cal Fire station. Embers bounced like hail on his deck, before it caught fire. He would lose his home and now sleeps in his travel van at the fairgrounds. “People were taking stuff from the front of their trailer while the back of the trailer was on fire,” Davenport recalled.

Aileen, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she doesn’t want her family to know about her difficult situation, was home alone with her cats. Her neighbor Randy Hood — a garbage worker in Unit 31 who had been living with a hernia as the coronavirus delayed his surgery — ran to help. He took his truck and backed it up to her travel trailer. The ball hitch didn’t fit. “Randy, the fire’s here, we’re gonna burn!” she screamed, as flames whipped across the treeline surrounding the park. He quickly changed the attachment and it clicked in. But the trailer had a flat. He pumped it up, as ammunition popped in a burning storage unit, and drove Aileen and her trailer out of the park.

“He’s my hero,” she said, giving him a hug. “I was doing what any man would do for anyone,” Hood said. “I don’t think I’m a hero.” Hood’s girlfriend Dori, who has stents in her heart, walked away from the group as they shared stories. She has struggled to cope with memories of that escape.

Shanann McDaniel, in Unit 26, drove through flames whipping along the shoulders of Highway 128 to pick up her husband on the other side of the lake. Scoot over, let me drive back, her husband told her when she arrived. “I said, ‘I love you baby, but you need to shut up, sit back and hold on!’” McDaniel recalled.

After the head of the fire moved past the park, Aileen walked back to Spanish Flat and found it in flames. She took a short video, narrating as she walked, out of breath, along the perimeter. “This is our trailer park,” the 41-year-old resident said over and over, her voice quivering and zooming in on her burning Unit 34. “This is our home.”

As Quecke straddled the warped steel frame of her destroyed trailer one last November day, she sifted through the gray ash. She’s filled eight garbage bags full of soot as she painstakingly searched for sentimental items in the remains of her home. On this day, she found her porch bell, a military trinket from her father, a 32-year Navy veteran who died in 2012. “He was on my shoulder saying, ‘Honey, it’s just stuff,’” Quecke said, choking up. “I grabbed his medals, flags, hat and ashes and got out of there.”

She visits the ruins often, sometimes calling out to her father as she sits on the small concrete bench where the pair used to sit together. “I tell him that I’m sorry. That I wish I could’ve done more,” said Quecke, tears welling up in her eyes. “He saved all of his military career. He had three sons. He didn’t give it to them to take care of. He gave it to me. And it was all taken. It’s all gone and I gave him my word.”

Quecke has chronic bronchitis and asthma and had to stop working as a security guard. She has received no stimulus payments and has “absolutely nothing,” she said. After an unemployment snafu with her Social Security number, she finally is getting payments and is working on getting a home loan. She was a month and a half late on rent when the fire hit, one of many in the park struggling with the pandemic. Her financial situation has only worsened since the fire.

In the days after, she and her two terriers, Beavis and Gunner, were put up in a motel room. She quickly used up her $150 in gift cards from the Red Cross. And as fires swept across the region and state, the motel asked the fire victims to leave. She and others bounced between motels for weeks, before word circulated that they could park their travel trailers — some owned and others borrowed — at the Napa Expo. “My life stopped. It hit a brick wall,” Quecke said. “It’s like dying but you’re still alive.”

Aileen (who asked to be identified only be her first name) walks past charred remains of neighbor's homes and belongings at the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa. | Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

 The struggle to find alternatives is likely to persist into the new year. Hood, who’s lived in a motel with his girlfriend since helping Aileen flee the fire, said he had a lead on an apartment and put in an application. But the apartment burned down during the Glass Fire. “It’s hard because it feels like so many people are trying to get places right now,” he said. McDaniel, who lives in a trailer at the Expo with her husband and daughter, contemplated a move to the cheaper Sacramento area, but any savings would be lost in the long commute for her spouse.

Abode has rehoused at least three families that initially stayed at the Expo, Upton said, and the county hopes to find long-term housing plans for an additional 20 households from both fires still at county shelters. “Napa County also currently has a very low vacancy rate, so finding new accommodations, particularly when there is an income restriction, can be challenging,” Upton said. “Many survivors have multiple pets, which can also be a barrier to finding a new housing opportunity quickly.” A herd of Spanish Flat dogs and cats putter around their campground. The fire victims all say the housing the county and Abode has offered would mean turning their pets over to the animal shelter, which is out of the question.

Just how much has or has not been offered to the fire victims depends on who you ask. The residents said they’ve been offered few options short of a cot in a homeless shelter. One option indefinitely off the table is a return to Spanish Flat. The park had its own water and sewer plant and neither is operational. There’s no electricity and the toxic mess of melted trailers sits unabated. Residents question if they’ll ever return. Owner Rob Wolf said he hopes to reopen, but the cleanup is a slow process as he has filed an application for county assistance.

“We would like to rebuild, but it needs to work and will depend on if the county is open and willing to help,” he said. “It was low-income housing and much needed, and the county has said that to us.” He’s hired an engineer and surveyors, but any reopening could take a year or two, Wolf said.


Dorothy Glaros (left) serves her friends and former Spanish Flat Mobile Villa residents Rich Woodard, Michele Quecke, Daniel Davenport and Catalina Tercero an early Thanksgiving dinner at the Napa Valley Expo fairgrounds, where they’ve been allowed to park their vehicles. | Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Meanwhile, the group gathers every breakfast and dinner for Aileen’s home-cooked meals to discuss their future. “We gave our word to everyone here that we’ll try and take care of each other,” she said, as she handed out coffee to residents as they trickled in. On the day before Thanksgiving, the refugees received 50 meals from a San Jose charity. They distributed the food to homeless friends and Spanish Flat neighbors. Then they sat down for an early Thanksgiving dinner, again sitting at Aileen’s picnic tables, her centerpiece plate full of walnuts as always.

Aileen rattled the dinner bell the Spanish Flat neighbors bought her. Each of them signed the gray metal. Quecke wrote in orange and blue paint: “Where friends become family.” They believe they’ll likely be there for Christmas, too.                       © Peter Kilkus 2020