January 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

How to Prepare  for the Next Disaster

by Andy Starr

There is little to add to the reporting about the firestorm that struck Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma wine country Oct. 8, 2017. It was unlike any other disaster to hit California. Within a few hours, 21 separate fires started, whipped by 50- to 70-mile-per-hour winds that increased in velocity as the conflagration quickly grew. From CalFire we learned that the Tubbs Fire burned more than 5,300 structures, making it California’s most destructive wildfire ever. The 1991 Oakland Hills fire is a distant second at 2,900 structures lost. Three additional fires started that night are among the 20 most destructive blazes in California history: the Nuns Fire (No. 6), Atlas Fire (No. 10) and Redwood Valley Complex (No. 16).

It’s human nature to think, “Well, that was a close call,” and then go back to whatever we were doing before the event. I live in Napa County, so I bought and wore an R-95 particulate-rated gas mask for more than a week. Breathing through it produced Darth Vader like sounds, but it was critical to enduring the smoky air. As I write this, a few weeks have passed, the skies are clear, and I have no idea where that mask is. 

We know better
We know that the days following events like these are the perfect time to assess our own disaster preparedness and plans. Your business may have had a formal written disaster plan that was annually updated, and your employees may have been properly trained on what to do in an emergency. Or your “plan” may have consisted of telling new hires, “Dude, there’s a fire extinguisher around here somewhere. I got it at a flea market a while ago. If there’s a fire, you should try to find it and use it.” 

If your business was located in the fire zone, when you and your crew locked up the winery and went home Oct. 8, your disaster planning was tested, regardless of whether or not you had a good plan. 

What can we learn from those who were close to the fire? How were they prepared? What did they learn that was unexpected? How would they do things differently next time? I interviewed three people who were right up against the flames and share their thoughts below. 

Early warning and good insurance 
Ernie Weir is the owner and winemaker of Hagafen Cellars, located on the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley. He has been producing wine since 1980, with production currently at 8,000 cases. To say his winery barely escaped the Atlas Fire would be an understatement: In the winery courtyard stands an olive tree burned on its northern half and intact on the southern side. He believes he lost nearly 2 acres of his 12 planted vineyard acres, noting that the full extent of damage will only become fully clear with the next growing season.

Weir explained that the winery has a disaster plan in place, noting that the first rule is “go outside.” Hagafen maintains a defensible border around buildings, keeps a current list of inventory items, and he plans to video these items. The winery was fortunate that two employees were onsite when the fires started, and they contacted Weir immediately, before power and cell service failed.

An unexpected event for Weir (and for everyone living through the fires) was the lack of access to communications due to the loss of electrical power, combined with nearly all cell phone towers burning down. Obtaining the most basic emergency information became impossible, as did communications to and from first responders, employees and anyone else who could assist.

Weir advises others to be proactive about their insurance coverage. Weir has worked with Sander, Jacobs, Cassayre Insurance Services in Napa for many years. He relies on them to make certain his insurance needs are being fully met at the most competitive price. Weir notes that comprehensive insurance “is expensive, but you have to have it.” He recommends that you see your insurance broker as a business partner, as insurance is complicated, necessary and far from most winery owners’ core competencies of making and marketing wine. 

Long ago, it was explained to me that insurance is like a box of bandages. Some work for one kind of wound, others for a different injury. Weir is insured for liability, property damage and business interruptions. The insurance for each of these is a different shaped “bandage” for a different kind of “injury.” Business-interruption insurance is probably the least understood; it assists with expenses and loss of income associated with a disaster. Hagafen was closed for a week due to the fires, losing tasting room revenue while still having to pay staff salaries and other business expenses. Depending on the business-interruption policy, insurance may cover loss of tasting room sales, temporary relocation costs, employee wages and rent.

Going forward, Weir said he will have better back-up power. It took one week to get a large generator delivered, and it arrived an hour after power was restored. Losing power for a full week during crush meant that fermentations couldn’t be cooled, and red tanks couldn’t be pumped over or pressed. Weir uses solar panels, but they require electricity from the grid to power his inverter, so they were unusable. He told Wines & Vines in the future he will add a battery system to be able to utilize his solar power.

Weir said he would recommend having your buildings made from steel or stone rather than wood. It may cost more, but it can’t burn. An organic farmer, he would also mow his vine rows lower to the ground, allowing the vineyard to be a more effective fire break than a fuel source. 

Ready for a firestorm
Jake Fetzer is co-owner of Masút Vineyard and Winery west of Redwood Valley, Calif., in the Eagle Peak appellation. Masút is an indigenous word meaning “dark, rich earth.” Fetzer’s vineyard was planted in the 1990s and provides all the grapes for his 5,000-case winery. 

The Redwood Valley Complex fire started within a few hours of the Atlas Fire, burning 36,000 acres and claiming nine lives. Fetzer explained that a fire fanned by 50- to 70-mile-per-hour winds, hurtling huge embers sideways, is a “firestorm” rather than “wildfire” or “brushfire.” 

“It was a unique event that burned everything in its path,” he said. From his home, Fetzer heard propane tanks and car gas tanks exploding all night long. The fire even jumped a 1,000-acre area that burned earlier in the year. 

The most significant part of Fetzer’s planning was the decision years earlier to buy a water truck and be trained to operate it. “We live and die by the water truck” and keep it filled at all times, he said. With it, Fetzer and his brother not only were able to save his winery and home but also aided their neighbors and used it to transport water to firefighters. They also own and used tractors and a bulldozer for firefighting.

Like Hagafen, Masút makes certain to mow all grass between the rows as low as possible, and to mow as soon as it’s dried out. Near buildings they use mowers and weed eaters beyond the recommended distance, going “as far out as we can go.” Fetzer observed that low grass makes a difference: His uncle’s cattle property was grazed and had much less damage. 

Insurance is part of the disaster plan at Masút. As it’s common for small wineries to blur the lines between personal and business assets, Fetzer advises that you spend the time to detail all business and personal property. He spends up to two full days preparing prior to the annual meeting with his insurance broker, stating, “It’s tempting to have a quick meeting, but shortsighted.” Like Weir, Fetzer recommends that “you know what you are insured for,” and that you continually report to your insurer where everything is. 

Not surprisingly, Fetzer recommends to either own a water truck or know who has one nearby. Maybe even share the cost among several neighbors and get trained on how to use it. “You want the ability to water down your winery if something is coming your way”—though in a firestorm, you can only do so much. He also cautions that the window for cutting grass is limited: You can start a fire if you try to do it too late in the season. 

More backup pumps and data
Ernie Ilsley is co-owner of Ilsley Vineyards and owns 23 acres in the Stag’s Leap District appellation of Napa Valley. The company farms its own vineyard, manages an additional 130 acres of Napa Valley vineyards and produces 500 cases of wine under the Ilsley label. In addition, the extended family lives in four homes on the property. The Ilsleys grew up in the industry, having grown grapes since the 1950s. 

Ilsley has first-hand awareness of fire dangers, as the 1981 Atlas Peak fire burned right up to the family’s property line. The homes on the property are surrounded by vineyards, which act as natural fire breaks. In addition, they create defensible space through weed trimming and cleaning up under trees close to the properties. The steep vineyard hillsides are also mowed. The goal is to do this annually, though some years they are able to be more vigilant than others. He observed that the well-cleaned and plowed areas worked well as a firebreak, but where they missed spots, it was touch and go. 

As the fire didn’t reach his property until mid-day Oct. 9, Ilsley had time to assemble hoses, pumps and other equipment. He didn’t have a water truck, but his friends at Piña Vineyard Management loaned him a water truck and bulldozer, which helped a lot. This is also a side benefit to being a good guy like Ernie. You will (a) have friends, and (b) they will help you out in times of need. Having generators onsite to pump from their 10,000-gallon water tank and swimming pool was especially useful, as electrical power was cut off for many hours.

For the “next one,” Ilsley said he will have a more detailed plan, including making sure all business data is backed up in a cloud-based location. He will buy two or three new gas-powered water pumps, “because the power will go off, either in a planned way by PG&E (the utility company) or otherwise.” With these pumps, they can quickly set up sprinklers around houses and build a wet buffer around the property. They will look at changing landscaping to something more fire resistant, and to increase defensible space to 100 feet. Ilsley offered one last bit of advice: “Make sure your fire emergency supplies are all in one location with dedicated hoses, fittings, etc. Not having to search your whole barn for a fitting reduces stress at a very stressful time.”

So, whether you are big or small, preparing for disaster requires you to (a) create a plan and be as prepared as possible, and (b) work closely and proactively with your insurance agent. The night of Oct. 8, 2017, proved to all of us that “the worst that could happen” can happen. 

Andy Starr, founder of StarrGreen (starr-green.com), is an entrepreneur, marketing manager and winemaker who provides strategy, management and business development consulting services. A resident of Napa Valley, Calif., he holds a bachelor’s degree in fermentation science from the University of California, Davis, and an MBA from UCLA.

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