An all-nighter on the golf course during wildfire threat

California’s recent wildfires and resultant power outages put superintendent Thomas Slevin on round-the-clock duty.


Filed to: California

Fairway aerification
Fairway aerification in September at Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park, located in Napa, Calif. The city of Napa is in the northern part of the state, in California’s wine country. Photos courtesy of Thomas Slevin

As golf course superintendent at Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park in Napa, Calif., Thomas Slevin is accustomed to fulfilling several roles.

Never did he expect to serve as overnight food babysitter, though.

And yet there he was, curled up in his truck, jumping at every unexpected sound and frightful feline, waking up every so often to tend to the generators that powered the refrigerator and freezer that housed the groceries that help keep the lights on.

“Protecting the perishable food became a big priority for me,” says Slevin, a four-year GCSAA member. “I got a lot of flak from guys. ‘Why were you doing that? Shouldn’t someone from food and beverage do that?’ And my response was, ‘Who would you rather have guarding $5,000 worth of food?’ The way I look at it, food and beverage keeps me in topdressing sand. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

“Our food and beverage department is such a big part of our overall budget. Without the weddings we do here, the golf course wouldn’t be here. So the thought of losing that much food was unacceptable to me.”

Napa Golf Course is one of countless properties affected by the ongoing California wildfires. Though not directly threatened by the actual flames of a fire — as of Halloween, the nearest threat, the Kincade Fire, was about an hour’s drive up the valley — the city of Napa has nonetheless been impacted.

Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park, for instance, has at times had to cut its hours short because of air quality concerns.

And then there was the night of Oct. 9, when Slevin — after a full day on the course — hunkered down in the cab of his pickup.

Napa gets its electricity from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. To limit liability in times of high winds and low humidity, PG&E has been, somewhat controversially, instituting intentional power outages, affecting millions of consumers.

Naturally, that also impacts hundreds of golf courses, one of which — Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park, where Slevin has worked for almost two years — learned that it likely would go dark on Oct. 9.

“(PG&E) doesn’t tell you for sure,” Slevin says. “They just say, more or less, ‘You may be affected.’ But for me, managing a multimillion-dollar asset, ‘I may be affected’ to me means, ‘I will be affected.’ That enabled me to make the preparations I made.”

Knowing the course — and its irrigation system — would be without power, Slevin prioritized water.

“I made it rain the night before,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve put out that much water on a golf course ever. I hammered this place. The golf course, for the most part, was safe.”

The same couldn’t be said for the foodstuffs.

Oct. 9 was a Wednesday, and Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park was set to host two weddings the following Saturday. Unsure whether power would be restored in time for the impending nuptials, the course made alternate plans.

“We were putting plans in place to fulfill those obligations,” Slevin says. “Could you imagine calling the bride and saying, ‘We can’t put on your wedding today?’”

Hopeful the outage would be short, Slevin turned his attention to more immediate needs.

Though course workers discussed hauling the foodstuffs to nearby sister properties — “I would have been driving food to make sure it happened,” Slevin says. “I’m the golf course superintendent, but I wear a lot of hats here.” — the decision was ultimately made to fire up the generator instead.

Slevin parked his mobile bunk near the clubhouse to keep the generator fueled and, well, on site.

“I was just keeping it running and making sure no one absconded with it,” he says. “Generators were a hot commodity here for a while. It was like ‘Mad Max’ out here. There were people fighting at gas stations. ... I wouldn’t say it was anarchy. That’s a bit of a stretch. But it was pretty dramatic. Unprepared people’s responses to crisis can be pretty dramatic. I was worried our generator would disappear.”

Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park
Pollinator habitat at Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park, an 18-hole public course.

Three times that night, Slevin says, “human visitors” visited the course.

“They probably heard our generator and thought they might like to have a generator,” says Slevin, who describes himself as “pretty outdoorsy,” though he hadn’t spent a night under the stars in a few years. “I brought a pillow and blanket and was pretty well prepared to sleep in the truck. I had a big jug of water and snacks. I was good to go.”

Upon seeing Slevin’s truck, the generator-curious visitors quickly reversed course.

“I didn’t even have to get out of the truck,” he says. “I definitely would not have allowed them to take the generator. You do your best to avoid conflict with people, but we couldn’t afford to lose thousands of dollars of food. That kind of loss would have been ... unacceptable.”

The near miss with those two-legged visitors wasn’t nearly as heart-stopping as a later startle from a four-legged interloper. Slevin was dozing in the wee hours when a cat jumped onto his truck.

“It wasn’t a giant cat,” Slevin recalls with a laugh. “It must have been 6, 8 pounds. It felt like a mountain lion jumped on my truck. I’m making it sound like I’m calm, cool and collected. But this little tiny cat jumps on my truck in the middle of the night, and I’m not really sleeping very well ... I spring out of the back seat. I have this toolbox in the back of the truck, and I’m face to face with this tiny cat. I started laughing out loud. It was quite a shock.”

The rest of the night passed without much excitement. Hours later, about 7:30 that night, just as Slevin was preparing to tuck into his truck/bed for a second consecutive night, power was restored to the course.

“I don’t think I’ve been that happy in a long time,” he says.

Napa Golf Course at Kennedy Park has remained open and even ran a “power outage” special: Green fees were discounted to $20, walking only.

“The first day, we sent carts out, but we couldn’t take the risk the second day,” Slevin says. “If the carts go out, they (golfers) couldn’t call because we didn’t have phones since the power was out. We got considerable play that day. We had more walkers on the course that day than I’ve seen since I’ve been here.

“There’s a lot of great golf in Napa Valley, but you have to bring your credit card. It’s expensive. We really take pride here in being an affordable option for the citizens of Napa. We really wanted to stay open for the citizens of Napa.”

Slevin is aware his situation isn’t unique or maybe even unusual.

“It’s not just me going through this,” he says. “There are dozens of superintendents who have done something like this. I know a few guys for sure who did overnights to man generators.”

Slevin says he’d do it all again. And, given the ongoing threat of wildfires and intentional power blackouts, “It’s entirely possible,” he says. “My blanket and pillow remain in my truck.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s managing editor.