In wine country, chefs leave behind homes to feed fire victims

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Woody Sims, owner Woody Sims Barbecue, works near his grill at an Operation BBQ Relief site on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 in Napa.
Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

Richard and Kathy Horwath only had time to take each other when they fled the fires Oct. 12, 2017 in Calistoga, Calif. The Horwath’s bought the property 30 years ago, but they only finished building their new home in 2010. Richard Horwath got up to go to bed when first smelled smoke in their bedroom, he then ran outside and saw the sky was orange. The power went out right after Richard grabbed his firehose that could have pumped hundreds of gallons of water a minute and that was when he and Kathy decided they needed to go. Neighbors were driving up and down the road outside, frantically honking their horns and the wind was blowing hard in their direction. After pausing to close every window so as to keep embers out, the Horwath’s left. As they began driving down the road, they started to hear “monstrous explosions” of nearby houses going up in flames. As the fire crested the ridge above their home, Richard said it sounded like a freight train. The two of them white-knuckle drove the whole way out towards Healdsburg, at one point having to drive through a vineyard to avoid downed trees. On highway 101, trees were falling left and right from the wind. An hour after they left, when they were heading down 101 past Santa Rosa, they could already see the fire making its way down Mark West Springs Rd towards the city. Though most of their neighbors homes were destroyed, their home made it.

Woody Sims, owner Woody Sims Barbecue, works near his grill at an Operation BBQ Relief site on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 in Napa.

To most people in the North Bay, smoke has become the enemy. A different kind of smoke, though, emanates from the apparatuses clustered in a parking lot 5 miles southeast of downtown Napa. There, beneath the ubiquitous stench of burning grass and torched plastic hover the aromas of chicken, pork and turkey, enough to feed thousands of people a day.

Bay Area chefs have responded en masse to the fires by preparing food for victims, volunteers and firefighters throughout the region. Sondra Bernstein of the Girl & the Fig is part of a team of chefs cooking with the Rotary Club at the Red Grape. Healdsburg’s Single Thread is preparing food from its gardens for local shelters. San Francisco food leaders such as Traci Des Jardins and Sam Mogannam, aided by dozens of cohorts, are preparing meals to truck north.

The Napa Valley BBQ Relief operation began on Tuesday, when Vince Sanchez, pit master of the Napa-based Woodhouse Barbecue, found himself in Walnut Creek, evacuated from his house in Calistoga. He, wife Christina, their 4-month-old baby and their parents were staying with relatives. Their catering jobs were canceled. He didn’t know what to do with himself.

Sanchez called Jim Modesitt, owner of Big Jim’s Barbecue in San Rafael and a volunteer with a national organization called Operation BBQ Relief, to ask if he could help. “We got able bodies, we got (equipment), we should be able to cook,” Sanchez said.

Operation BBQ Relief connects thousands of volunteers from the competitive barbecue circuit and has served close to 1.7 million meals in 23 states since its founding in 2011, most recently in hurricane-ravaged Texas and Florida. Modesitt was already setting up a site at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, an effort Santa Rosa resident and celebrity chef Guy Fieri would soon join.

Modesitt asked Sanchez to set up a second site in the city of Napa where pit bosses could gather and prepare food for first responders and evacuees. Sanchez agreed. He roped in Tedd Romero, owner of Sticky Business Barbecue and an evacuee himself. He then reached out to Patrick Robertson, who co-owns Amiee D’Maris Events in Napa, to see if they could use his commercial kitchen. Robertson quickly agreed; he was already cooking food that had been ordered for two Napa winery weddings that had been canceled.

Sanchez and his family bought enough food to serve 400 lunches and 400 dinners. Other volunteer pit masters in his network soon arrived, traveling from Sacramento, Nevada and Southern California. Several of the Amiee D’Maris cooks lost their houses in the fires, but they showed up as well to work.

Since then, a group of 20 to 30 volunteers have been smoking meat nonstop. On Wednesday, they prepared 1,200 meals. On Thursday, they projected that they would cook more than 2,000, a number that might rise to 3,000 on Friday. Sanchez called Del Monte Meats, his supplier, to ask for a donation; within minutes, 1,700 pounds of meat was on its way. Another grocery store brought by a truckload of bread, sliced meats and cheeses. Several wineries placed a massive produce order to be delivered to the site. Alerted by telephone or social media, strangers have showed up at the site with pallets of water and cases of cooking oil.

The crew — which currently includes G-Stack Smokers, Woody Sims Barbecue, Bacon Raider and Smoakville — is sending out sandwiches by the hundreds during the day and preparing thousands of pounds of smoked chicken, ribs, pork butt and pork loin dinners at night. The Calistoga Fire Department called to say 100 firefighters in Calistoga haven’t eaten for 12 hours — and a truck immediately went out. Other truckloads are destined for shelters, PG&E headquarters and police departments.

“If you ain’t got a home, you need a meal,” Sticky Business pitmaster Romero said.

On Thursday night, Operation BBQ Rescue arrived, bringing giant recreational vehicles and truckloads of supplies to bolster their effort. That will keep Sanchez from having to sleep in his truck at night to prevent the barbecue rigs from getting stolen.

The constant work has kept the Sanchezes from thinking about the fact that the webcam monitoring their home stopped sending images at 11 a.m. on Thursday.
“Anything could be happening to our house right now,” Vince Sanchez said. “People are taking care of me.” The least he can do, he said, is feed them in return.

Jonathan Kauffman is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @jonkauffman