January 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Fiery End to 2017 for California

 
by Andrew Adams, Jaime Lewis, Jane Firstenfeld and Kate Lavin 
 
 

San Rafael, Calif.—Firefighters were slowly gaining containment on a massive fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as Wines & Vines went to print in mid-December. 
 

The blaze, known as the Thomas Fire, had consumed more than 250,000 acres and was only 50% contained at press time. Since the fire began Dec. 4, it had destroyed 728 homes and claimed the life of one firefighter. 
 

Intense Santa Ana winds blowing from the east fanned the flames and made firefighting difficult. Much of Southern California remained under a red flag (fire danger) warning for weeks, and there was little to no rain forecast for the rest of the month.  
 

Brigid O’Reilly, director of winemaking at Topa Mountain Winery in Ojai, told Wines & Vines that Anna’s Cider in Upper Ojai lost everything to the Thomas fire. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulates cider and perry producers as wineries, and according to O’Reilly, who also works as sales and marketing director of Anna’s Cider, the cidery was a bonded winery. “We are all safe and evacuated from Upper Ojai until things are in working order, although they will never go back to normal,” she wrote. “The hills around us are destroyed and unrecognizable, including our cider facility.
 

“In spite of this devastation, our determination to produce craft cider and our dedication to our local community prevails. We are planning to restart Anna’s Cider immediately.”
 

Other wineries in the area were thankful to report their facilities and vineyards escaped damage from the fires. 
 

“As you have probably heard by now, the Upper Ojai Valley was severely impacted by the Thomas Fire that started just down Highway 150 from our property,” read a message posted Dec. 9 on the Boccali Vineyards & Winery Facebook page. “The vineyard suffered some minor damage; however, we were able to save the main winery buildings and the family home. For this we are extremely grateful.” A follow-up message shared a crowdfunding website to support one of the winery’s employees, whose home was lost to the flames.
 

On Dec. 7, Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard shared on Facebook: “I am very happy to report that all the staff is safe, and there is apparently no damage to our winery. We have not been let into our property yet, but reports are good.” He continued with a word about the tasting room, writing: “Due to the unpredictability of the fires and still potentially dangerous situation, the tasting room is closed. We aim to resume normal business hours as soon as possible.”
 

Similarly, on Dec. 8 the Topa Mountain Winery shared on its Instagram page that the winery in Upper Ojai remained standing. “Unfortunately, many of our neighbors have not been so lucky...” the message read.
 

“First and foremost, we want to thank the fire department teams that are tirelessly helping to protect our community,” read a Dec. 9 message on the Facebook page for Casa Barranca Organic Winery. “Without these angels, we would not be able to...give you a positive update.”
 

The message went on to share that a member of the Casa Barranca team had sprayed fire retardant on the estate and winery, keeping company with the fire crew throughout the night. 
 

 “We are happy to report that the estate, winery and tasting room have made it through this horrific event. All of our staff and their families are safe and, as of now, no one has lost their home. Unfortunately, it is not over yet. Due to the unpredictability of the fires, and the dangers involved, our tasting room will be closed until further notice; our goal is to resume normal business hours as soon as possible.”

‘The new normal?’
After California Gov. Jerry Brown declared on news program “60 Minutes” that these historic blazes are “the new normal,” Wines & Vines contacted Dr. Gregory Jones for his take on the situation.
 

Jones, director of wine education and professor of environmental studies at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., is perhaps the wine industry’s best-known climate expert. The current disasters are not as simple as Brown’s sound bite implied, Jones said. “There are a lot of different components. We’ve heard so many people talk about the ‘perfect storm’. Some of these elements clearly came together to fuel the fires.”
 

The western United States has long been vulnerable to extreme, damaging fires, Jones said. Last year, when the end of California’s longtime drought was declared, residents and winegrowers were relieved. But Southern California “never came out of the drought,” Jones noted.
 

Most of the state enjoyed a wet winter in 2016, and ironically those same rains fed the flames this fall. The rapid growth of small tinder provided fuel for the spread of wildfires in Northern California, according to Jones.
 

California’s hot summer was a “heat stress event,” he said. “We all live in a fragile environment. I don’t care what’s to blame: A small spark from a lawnmower can touch off a massive fire.”
 

Yes, the western states have always had fires in the summer. They used to be called “forest fires.” These days we’ve seen that these fires are not limited to wooded environments: They destroy entire residential neighborhoods as well as agricultural lands.
 

“I do think there are more people living in a fragile environment, more people living in nature,” Jones said. He noted that in both Northern and Southern California, the fires were driven by high winds. “There is some evidence that Native Americans may have seen fires sweeping from the Sierra Nevada to the coast,” he said.
 

So, can we blame climate change? “It is a component,” Jones said. “We are living in a warmer, drier climate. The general conditions will be more conducive to fires.”
 

The high-velocity, offshore winds that drove recent fires come along when a high-pressure area positions itself just right in dry interior areas, he explained. Although not as prevalent as the notorious Santa Ana winds, gusts approaching hurricane speed also spread fires in Oregon and Northern California this year.
 

The winds are created by uneven heating of the earth, he said. When one place heats up, it draws the fire.
 

Even the patterns of the North Coast fog could change if inland areas warm more than the coast, according to Jones.
 

What can the wine industry learn from the firestorms of 2017? As many have observed, vineyards make great firebreaks. When planting new vineyards or replanting old ones, build fire risks into your plan, and be thoughtful about access. “We live in a very dry and challenging environment, and fires are not going away,” Jones cautioned. “We need to be more prudent.”
 

In the aftermath of fires 
Some of the blackened hills of the North Coast are sporting a light covering of green as new grasses push from the soil following November rains. Yet many of the trees on those hills are dead brown, and large swaths of blackened hillside remain in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Solano counties.
 

Months after fires ignited across the North Coast, much work remains to be done in ensuring the areas affected by the fires won’t be further damaged by significant erosion. On Dec. 7, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers held a recovery session in Yountville attended by a few dozen growers and vintners and viewed by a much wider audience via livestream. Several speakers from county and state agencies offered advice and tips about how to deal with fire-damaged trees, protect vineyards from erosion and ensure waterways are clear.
 

Shaun Horne, watershed and flood-control resource specialist with the Napa County Flood Control & Water Conservation District, said land owners should conduct a thorough assessment of damage to trees on their property. If cuts into a given tree’s bark reveal tissue that is green and healthy, it likely can survive, but if the tissue is brown, dry and dead—and the tree could fall across a road or onto a structure—it should be removed. In most cases, dead trees can be left where they are, and even trees that have fallen across creeks or streams can be “modified” rather than removed.
 

Horne said the branches can be removed and the trunk cut into sections so as to not block significant water flows or snag debris. The county also offers a stream-maintenance program that can assist with downed trees and help cover up to 75% (up to $35,000) of the cost of stream bank-stabilization programs. Watersheds in fire areas will experience significantly higher flows, and Cal Fire produces detailed Watershed Emergency Response Team reports following a fire. These fire-specific reports can be found online as part of incident reports at fire.ca.gov.
 

Charles Schembre, vineyard conservation coordinator for the Napa County Resource Conservation District, said vineyard owners and managers in Napa Valley are generally well experienced when it comes to erosion control. “You already have a lot of skills and understanding of erosion-control measures,” he said. “Do the things you normally do.”
 

Schembre said he’s met with many people with property beneath blackened hillsides, and there’s an understandable urge to do something more such as cover the entire hillside with straw. However, unless that land is directly upslope from a vineyard, further action may not be needed or even helpful. 
“In most cases, I think it’s safe to say don’t do anything when it’s quite a bit away from your vineyard and other infrastructure,” he said.
 

Schembre said he’s still getting called out to properties where he’s seen extensive damage to drainage infrastructure, from melted pipes to ditches that have been clogged with debris. He urged the audience to “get out there and look at every piece of drainage,” because one failure point could lead to significant problems later in the winter.
 

If a piece of drainage can’t be repaired or replaced, Schembre suggested opening it as a ditch and reinforcing it with rock. Existing ditches that may now be clogged should also be cleared and inspected for any damage. Water bars, designed to move water off roads, and other erosion-control features may also have been damaged by the heavy equipment, and roads can also begin to erode from the heavy wheel ruts.
 

Cal Fire and PG&E may also send a work crew out to repair damage or prevent erosion in the aftermath of the fire. “It’s not just what burned but the fire management that happened on the ground,” he said.
 

Sonya DeLuca, associate director of the grapegrowers’ group, said the event came together to try and answer the most common questions that have continued to flow into the group’s office in the days and weeks after the fires. “This is a season we’ll remember for a lifetime,” she said of the recent vintage.
 

The NVG has donated all its remaining N95 masks, clothing and other suppliers to other agricultural groups affected by fires in Southern California.
 

On Dec. 6, the California Department of Insurance announced residential and commercial property claims from wildfires throughout the state in 2017 totaled more than $9.4 billion. The North Bay fires account for $9 billion of that total, which is based on claims to more than 260 insurers for the destruction and damage to more than 21,000 homes, 2,800 business, more than 6,100 vehicles and nearly 800 other types of claims.
 

During the months after the fires, the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif., conducted a wide-ranging survey of the North Bay wine industry in an attempt to gauge the impact of the fires. SSU staff plan to release the results of the survey at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium taking place Jan. 23-25 in Sacramento, Calif.
 

 
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