Part 1: We fought like hell to save this ranch
There was no giving up.
October 8th, 2017 started like any other Sunday with one exception. What began as a beautiful fall morning in the Napa Valley ended with a fierce firestorm, and an intense battle to save the family ranch.
Early that morning, Jim, Laura and the winery team hustled about to prepare for the annual wine club party. More than 250 club members mingled in the garden, sampling new vintages and taking in the views. After a wonderful day, Laura and Jim were winding down at the house, enjoying dinner with Laura’s boys, Jake and Andrew, and Andrew’s friend Xander. The evening had become unusually warm. The air was dry, and the wind was beginning to whip about in an eerie fashion, and the family began settling in for the night, blissfully unaware of the fury that lay ahead. It was oddly late when the phone rang. The caller, Karen Desimoni, a longtime family friend was short and to the point, “There’s a fire in Atlas Peak, it’s moving fast, and headed your way.”
Immediately, Jim and Jake jumped in the pickup and drove to the ridge top to see how close the fire actually was. Jim had experienced three other big fires in the area, and from the glow in the night sky knew the seriousness of the call. From the high ground it was immediately clear that the strong winds and the tall, dry grass on the ground were creating a fire the likes of which he’d never seen. But his family had weathered what nature served up for more than 100 years on this ranch. Droughts, earthquakes, floods, phylloxera and fire – Reguscis had always met every challenge with a mix of grit, heart and determination, and Jim held fast to his belief that this night would be no different. Back at the house, Laura knew the situation was getting worse as the smoke, wind and heat moved closer. She instructed the younger boys to get their boots on and stay close. With the fire moving closer, their highest priority was getting Aunt Isabelle out of her home. They managed to wake her and get her to safety, and even Isabelle, who had lived on the property for most of her 86 years, could not recall anything quite like this night. It was a terrifying experience for two ten-year olds who had never seen fire this close, but they kept their calm and as the flames creeped steadily down the hills behind the houses they helped Laura with Isabelle and then set to work trying to release the smaller animals from their pens. The gates were overwhelming for little fingers in the dark and the wind was whipping about, blowing live embers all around them. Everyone understood that every move and every minute would matter.
“Jake, Angel and Sterling threw anything that could burn into the swimming pool, using hoses and flower buckets to douse encroaching flames.”
Jim and Laura met back at the house with the boys to regroup and prepare themselves for the reality that their family home would likely burn to the ground. They gave themselves five minutes to grab what they could. While Jim gathered up guns and their wedding album, Laura collected out their passports, baby books and took old photos of the ranch from the walls. The younger boys helped load things into the car, and took turns keeping Aunt Isabelle company. Jim explained that he needed Jake “with him” to fight until they had more help. It was a heart dropping moment for everyone in the room, but the teenager followed Jim’s instructions without hesitation. He took a pickup and headed out to open gates so horses and cattle could escape. It was clear they needed more help, and Jim placed two very important phone calls, one to Jason Lauritsen, director of vineyard operations and one to Vicente Navarette, the ranch manager. In turn, Jason called Matt Weinert, an equipment operator and asked him to get to the ranch as soon as he could. Laura called Jim’s daughter Alicia and asked if their son-in-law Matt Hardin could come down as fast as he could from Pope Valley. She also called Carli Pastrama, whose husband, a firefighter might have additional information. Carli told Laura that all of the firefighters were rescuing lives on Atlas Peak – there would be no help coming. She implored Laura to get out as fast as she could. The fire was completely out of control. Matt Weinert arrived with a D8 an hour and 18 minutes after Jason placed the call – just as the fire was beginning to engulf the property. Jason, Vicente and both Matts were now on property, gathering as much equipment (hoses, pumps, etc) as they could find and within an hour the makeshift crew were cutting firebreaks. They started behind Aunt Isabelle’s, where the fire was within ten feet of the house. Winemaker, Bill Nancarrow, winery chef, Angel Perez and friend, Sterling Greenwalt, and Sheriff and family friend James Baumgartner arrived to offer help. A small crew of Regusci Vineyard Management men who were scheduled to be at the ranch for a night pick had shown up for work in spite of the conditions, and they willingly joined the firefighting efforts. Collectively, this loyal cadre fought like hell to save the ranch.
“Embers were everywhere, the flames were right in front of us, and we just kept going,” Matt Hardin says. “We were right in the middle of it, we all could feel the heat, but we were not going to let that fire get past us.”
As the night wore on the team turned their focus to Jim and Laura’s home. They plowed through vineyards to get there with the earthmoving equipment as Jake, Angel and Sterling threw anything that could burn into the swimming pool, using hoses and flower buckets to douse encroaching flames. Another friend, local Sheriff John Thompson arrived to check on the family and stayed to help. Laura dragged the BBQ propane tanks and ATVs away from the house and into the vineyard to remove fuel sources, while Aunt Isabelle and the young boys stayed safe in the car. A main water line snapped under the bulldozer, and 40,000 gallons of precious water were lost from the main tank but there was nothing to do but keep fighting. Jim was driving the skid steer through flames, pushing the fire away from the house and ripping fence line apart to give remaining livestock a fighting chance at survival. Laura tracked down a steel hose to help get water from the swimming pool onto the house. The winds had reached hurricane levels, gusting up to 70 miles per hour and just as suddenly as they arrived, they shifted north. The house would be saved, but now the winery was in jeopardy. In the predawn hours this motley assembly of family, friends, staff and neighbors was focused on saving the historic building and the wines housed within it. Bill set to work hosing down the crush pad to keep blowing embers away from the fermentation tanks and the cellar. “Embers were everywhere, the flames were right in front of us, and we just kept going,” Matt Hardin says. “We were right in the middle of it, we all could feel the heat, but we were not going to let that fire get past us.”
“I think about what happened that night, about how everybody came together and did what they knew they had to do, and it’s no wonder this place is still here.”
The fire was burning so quickly that fuel tanks by the shop were getting ready to blow. Armando Perez, his daughter Araceli and Elfuego who had been helping tamp down embers, began to run to get clear of the potential explosion. Using the bulldozer, Matt (Weinert) moved mounds of soil over the tanks hoping to cover them in time, and toppled several massive oak trees that were already burning into the open parking lot. With the flaming trees on the ground, Armando, Elfuego and Araceli were able to use fire extinguishers to put out the flames. At 76, Armando had been on the ranch for more than 30 years. On this night he worked in lock step with Jim, doing everything he could to save it. By 3 am on the 9th, the firestorm had moved past the ranch. Laura took Isabelle and the boys across the road to Rob and Lydia Mondavi’s home, where beds were made up and tearful stories shared. Everyone was exhausted, but at first light they were eager to return to the ranch. An eerie calm had settled in. Very little news was available and there was no cellular service. Power lines were down. Smoke from three separate fires clogged the air and there was no road traffic to speak of. The cows had managed to stay clear of the blaze and were now milling about on a patch of green lawn at the side of the house providing a moment of much needed levity to an otherwise inconceivable scenario. Less than 12 hours earlier it was just another school night. Now the ridge was blackened and smoking and the whole world seemed turned upside down. The only thing left to do was to start mopping up and wait for news of how others had fared.
By 6 p.m. on the 9th of October, a little less than 18 hours after the fire had ripped through the property, Jim, Jason Lauritsen, and electrician, Bill Matthews, had a generator working and power restored at the ranch and at a handful of neighboring properties. Friends and employees, eager to help, managed to get past roadblocks with everything from food to building supplies and, as it had in so many other difficult times, the ranch became a refuge and a gathering spot for its extended family. As the rebuilding process began, a deep appreciation for the land and hope for the future was a common thread amongst all who were present that evening. The Atlas Peak fire was finally contained on October 30th, 21 days after it began. It burned more than 50,000 acres, destroying hundreds of homes. Six people lost their lives. It was one of three fires burning simultaneously in the region which collectively represented one of the most damaging wildfires, to date, in the history of California. All told, nearly half of the Regusci Ranch was burned, but only 2.5 acres of vineyard was lost. And although it literally burned to their back doorstep, every structure on the property was saved that night by the efforts of a small loyal team who worked ceaselessly for five critical hours to preserve more than a century of Napa Valley history. “I think about what happened that night, about how everybody came together and did what they knew they had to do, and it’s no wonder this place is still here,” Jim says, “And I’m forever grateful for everyone who had our backs.”