Are Wildfires the New Normal?

Wine industry climate scientist says growing population sheds light on phenomenon

by Jane Firstenfeld
wine  vineyard erosion fire
Just a few feet separate burned vines from vineyard rows that escaped fire in California’s North Coast.

McMinnville, Ore.—As fires continue to ravage Southern California, and the North Coast struggles to recover, many in the wine industry are left to wonder: What’s next?’ 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 patterns of the beloved 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.”

And the fires burn on

As of 2:18 p.m. today, the Thomas fire, which started Dec. 4 in Ventura County, had grown to 237,500 acres, threatening communities in Santa Barbara County. It was 25% contained, but officials said high winds might revive in coming days.  For updates and details, click here.

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.”


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