A Mother Mary statue remains standing and nearly unscorched in a forest that burned in the Atlas Fire on October 11, 2017 near Napa. In one of the worst wildfires in state history, more than 2,000 homes have burned and at least 21 people were killed as more than 14 wildfires continue to spread with little containment in eight Northern California counties.
It was 2 a.m. Monday morning. Dr. Kenny Omlin of Napa was in the process of getting his family off of their 11-acre estate as flames from the Atlas Fire rapidly approached. He opened his car door and saw his 80-year-old mother sitting in the passenger seat, clutching a rosary and praying.
“When I first saw her, I was like ‘Seriously?’ It’s the middle of the night, there are flames coming, and she’s just sitting there praying,” Omlin told SFGATE. “I didn’t say this out loud, obviously, but I wanted to say: ‘This is no time to pray. We need to get out of here.'”
Omlin was tasked with evacuating six people from his property, including his wife, his mother, his 84-year-old father, his brother who has Down syndrome and his two children, a 10-day-old and a 20-month-old.
“We were right in harm’s way,” he said. “And it took us two hours to get off of the property.”
Omlin and his family drove away as flames started to consume their property on Monticello Road, about a quarter mile from where the Atlas Fire started.
As he left, Omlin was certain that everything would burn.
“I thought that everything I worked for my entire life was gone,” he said. “The news kept showing clips of what was happening in Napa, and I thought everything would be toast.”
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Omlin, his wife and his two children live in a house near the top of the property, and his parents and brother live in a compound separate from his house.
“My parents live at the compound with my brother who is disabled, I thought wow, we’re all going to be homeless,” Omlin said.
After fleeing the property, the Omlins went to Vacaville to stay with the family’s nanny, who lives in a 1,200 square-foot home.
“We sat there for four hours until the sun came up,” he said.
When the sun came up, Omlin went to work in Vacaville, since he had patients to see. Throughout the day, he called everyone he knew to see if any of them knew what happened to his house.
“I had my wedding ring and a black bag with scrubs,” he said. “I didn’t have wherewithal to take birth certificates or a key to the house. I sat [at work] for a while and called everyone I knew. I said, ‘Guys, you gotta help me, tell me is that house or compound still standing?’ They said Cal Fire won’t let us back in there.”
Eventually, he got in touch with one of the local sheriffs, who went to Omlin’s property to assess the damage.
“He told me that my house and compound were still standing,” Omlin said. “Everything nearby was torched, but somehow, they still stood.”
Omlin needed to see it to believe it, and secured a police escort to return to his house on Tuesday.
Sure enough, Omlin returned to find his house and compound still standing, even though the trees and ground right next to the buildings were scorched.
“The only thing near us that was still standing was a vineyard down the hill beneath us,” Omlin said. “Everything else was torched.”
After walking around his property, Omlin took pictures of how close his house came to being engulfed by the burning areas.
“It was so surreal,” Omlin said. “Remembering my mom and the rosary, and then to see the Madonna sitting there.”
The statue was white before the fire and is now a brownish color.
“I will never forget this moment,” Omlin said. “When I saw my mom and that rosary, I wanted to say, ‘I believe in prayer, but right now we need to move. This is not the time for praying.’ I felt so bad.
“But when I saw the statue, I said, ‘Shame on you Kenny.'”
The Atlas Fire has burned 50,383 acres and is 45 percent contained as of Saturday afternoon