An Amherst couple arrived in Yountville, Calif., on Sunday afternoon for a three-day visit to the wine country of Napa Valley.
Seven hours later, they were lucky to get out alive when a huge wildfire broke out not far from the Silverado Resort, where they were staying.
"We had gone out for a nice dinner in Yountville, and had gone to bed around 9:30," Rose Ciotta said. "An hour later, I heard a commotion and looked outside. There was all kinds of activity – smoke, embers flying through the air. Somebody yelled to me, 'Everyone is evacuating, immediately!' "
She and her husband, Joseph Cultrara, threw on some clothes, ran to their car and left in such a hurry they didn't even take their cellphones or luggage.
"We got to the main road and realized, we didn't have our cellphones, didn’t have GPS, and we'd left all our maps in the room," Ciotta said. "We just headed south, away from there."
With only a small amount of gasoline in their car, they were lucky enough to find a small gas station still open. Later – after stopping at five or six hotels that were fully booked with people escaping the fire – they found a hotel room in the city of San Rafael.
They later learned that an elderly couple – a man, 100, and his wife, 99 – died in their home, in a neighborhood adjacent to the Silverado Resort. The resort itself sustained only minor fire damage.
"We met a lot of fire refugees at the hotel," said Ciotta, an author and journalist for more than 40 years. "We met two different families whose homes had been destroyed. One man looked at me and Joe and said, 'We lost everything.' It was so sad. For us, it was just an inconvenience. These people lost everything they had – photos, heirlooms, everything."
They also met a couple who had been evacuated from a hotel that burned to the ground.
At least 31 people have been killed in the Napa Valley wildfires, including in the Atlas Peak fire that threatened Ciotta and her husband.
Ciotta, a former Buffalo News staffer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for investigative stories with the Philadelphia Inquirer, said she is still shaken by the devastation of the fire and how quickly it spread through the wine country. Another aspect of the tragedy also upset her.
"It really bothered me that we had no official warning of the danger," Ciotta said. "No alarms or sirens going off. We just happened to wake up because of the commotion outside. We heard that there were people living near the resort who only escaped because their neighbors banged on their doors and woke them up. There was supposed to be a cellphone-alert system, but we heard that cell towers were destroyed by the fire."
When she and her husband were driving away from the resort, she said, Napa Valley radio stations were playing pre-recorded music or talk shows, with no mention of the fire emergency.
"An old-fashioned alarm or siren" might have been a better, more dependable way to wake people up, Ciotta said.
"After going through this, I would say that every community needs to take a close look at how they notify people of emergencies," Ciotta said. "I think every community, including Buffalo, needs to take a look at this issue."