by Christy Canterbury MW

Facing The Fires

During Napa’s intense “fire season” last year, I wondered what locals have been doing about this menace since 2017. Napa is a moneyed wine region. Surely it has the funds to do something? A contractor working with a winery that suffered extensive 2020 wildfire damage countered, “How do people have money? They keep it.”

The outpouring of funds post-fires is enormous. (And, of course, some of that money comes from pockets outside the region.) Were funds being dedicated to fire prevention and mitigation in Napa? As Benjamin Franklin said of fire awareness in 1736, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Nicole Hakli, former sommelier and current wine consultant at De Maison Selections, worked the 2020 harvest at Newton Napa Valley. That is, she did until the Glass Fire ripped through Spring Mountain and burned Newton. Hakli said that from all of her conversations it seemed that fire season, “…has resulted in more research into smoke taint and protecting the Valley’s greatest product, but it hasn’t resulted in more efforts to combat actual fires or global warming. The macro-level needs to be addressed, and I think there is enough money in Napa Valley to support it if this was a collective effort in research.”

Hakli also said that the most surprising part of her experience “was how casual and disillusioned Californians were in regards to fires – especially those who lived through 2017.” Many did not take the situation seriously saying, “Oh, we have been through this a few years ago…nothing happens…it’s fine…” or, “This is very early for fire season. Normally we get fire season in October.”

Stephanie Franklin, an aspiring winemaker and vintner living in Texas who interned at Trois Noix Wines remembered, “I stayed in the heart of Napa and it was almost like zombie land. The streets were empty. I could feel the stress and the tension in the air. I felt that everyone was fighting to stay above water and trying to figure things out.”

It’s not that Napa’s wine industry hasn’t been busy, of course. Nicolas Quillé MW is the Chief Winemaking and Operations Officer for Crimson Wine Group, who owns Pine Ridge Vineyards in Napa, along with properties throughout California as well as in Oregon and Washington. He said, “I am unfortunately becoming an expert at crop insurance, business risk mitigation and smoke taint chemistry.” He certainly isn’t alone.

The thing is that 2017 was an extreme event. However, climate change has revved up such that the extreme is becoming the norm. Below is the Napa acreage burned since 2012 according to CalFire. The 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2020 numbers include neighboring county acreage as fires crossed county lines, so it’s not a perfect comparison. Yet, a crescendo seems evident. (CalFire’s online statistics go back only to 2012.)

Year     Acres Burned
2012     200
2013    641
2014*  4,333
2015    93
2016    65
2017*  145,123
2018*  92,935
2019    640
2020* 430,785

Diana Snowden-Seysses of Snowden Vineyards said, “Fires are part of the Californian landscape. Like earthquakes. I grew up with fire seasons and drought and water restrictions. You don’t barbeque next to dry grass…. Never, however, never did they have the same amplitude that they have today.”

The Napa Community Faces Future Fires Head On

As the not-so “wet season” ended this spring leaving reservoirs critically low – at 50% of their usual holdings at this point in the year, Napans radically started stepping up their game to prepare for 2021’s “firecasts”.

Where to start? The answers were the same from everyone: anywhere and everywhere; as a community, as separate companies, as individual stakeholders. What was abundantly clear in my many conversations was that – well, it’s not a metaphor here – since a fire had been lit under them, most were pursuing ways to help with urgency.

Jaime Araujo of Trois Noix Wines said, “I liken it to 20 years ago when droughts really started to be a major issue in our lives. We had to learn new behaviors….” She continued, “Napa County already has laws in place about how and where we can build, develop land, etc. There’s no reason we couldn’t have rules and regulations around landscaping and controlled burns, to cite just two examples.”

As a community, efforts have ramped up from the rather more expected and obvious – like hiring almost double the seasonal firefighting force and improving cell phone service in the mountains – to the aggressive – considering early fire detection systems spaced across the county and offering to CalFire to purchase FireBoss airplane tankers to aid CalFire’s FireHawk helicopters. Incredibly, Alan Viader of Viader Vineyards and Winery even graduated from CalFire’s six-month fire academy, prompted to do so after the Viader property was damaged in 2017.

When I asked Jon Ruel, CEO of Trefethen Vineyards in the Oak Knoll District in southern Napa, about the differences in how wineries feel about how fire protection measures should be conducted for, “up valley” (St. Helena/Calistoga) versus “down valley” (the town of Napa) or “valley floor” versus “mountain vineyards”, he agreed that individual needs varied but said that Napa Valley is all in this together. “This valley is so small that last year the Glass Fire literally jumped across the valley – going from the eastern hills to the western hills without actually burning a path, the wind just carried the embers. Given the high winds associated with our fire weather, a fire anywhere in Napa County is a threat to all of us.”

“We all have been evacuated at least once – and it’s frightening,” wrote Chris Kajani, Winemaker and General Manager at Bouchaine Vineyards. Indeed, terrifying.

I’m Outta Here

Some aren’t waiting to see if things get better. They’re leaving, and that started before the fires of 2020.

In January 2021, the Napa Valley Registry reported that Napa County’s estimated population shrank for the fourth consecutive year. At the time of the estimate, fewer people lived in Napa than just nine years before. Plus, the estimate came before the 2020 Hennessey and Glass fires, which destroyed more than 1,300 homes. The contractor I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the locals he has come to know without wine industry ties are devasted and numb. It’s not just the wildfires. Looking back at those last nine years, there has been a devasting earthquake and repeated, harsh droughts, too.

The contractor went on to say that when property owners receive big insurance pay-outs, he wouldn’t blame them for picking up and moving elsewhere, especially where they can sell at a fetching priced based on the area’s reputation. The biggest driving factor is time. How long will it take to rebuild the property, just for the construction much less permitting? Napa has made it easy to rebuild if you have your original plans, but if you want something totally new, it will take four to six months for permits alone. Of course, the property has to be designed first. Plus, regardless of whether an owner stays or goes, s/he is responsible for all costs associated with site demolition and disposal, including hazardous materials like creosote and asbestos, a not uncommon original building material. Walk away and rebuild in another state, less prone to natural disaster, or stay and lose money for a few years rebuilding? This decision is compounded by the fact that there is no guarantee a similar disaster won’t happen again; rather there are increasing chances that it will.  Owners can “overbuild” the new structures with modern safety systems, but they can’t do anything to protect the land around them.

Speaking of which, who is overseeing land? There is no national fire code that takes into account wildfires. The National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) sets codes and standards, but these are for interior buildings, processes, designs and installations. There is a code for land under development, but not for wildland. Michele Steinberg, the NFPA’s Wildfire Division Director, wrote on the agency’s site last November that, “…we need to utilize our knowledge of wildfire by creating fire-resilient landscapes and, ultimately, a society that can truly co-exist with wildfire.”

What a jolting idea, to “truly co-exist with wildfire”!

Corporate and Small Wineries Face Tough Choices

Still, even with updated building codes, much work remains to be done. Upgrades are voluntary. No one can be forced to upgrade, unless there is a renovation and the renovation hits a certain dollar threshold. If a building was last renovated in 1998, that building only needs to meet the standards that were in place at that time.

Let’s take one example of how complicated renovations and upgrades may be. If a major renovation takes place, sprinkler systems are definitely on the upgrade list if they weren’t already in use. They are expensive and require a reliable water source, which is harder and harder to come by during drought conditions.

Plus, there is the fact that sprinkler systems are generally installed to protect the interior of a building, not the exterior. Interior sprinklers activate by rising heat (135-165° F) that breaks a glycerin-based, liquid tube behind the sprinkler disk. If an interior sprinkler activates, chances are the building is burning already. If sprinklers are installed on the building’s exterior, these should activate first. Now comes the question of water. Is there enough to sustain pressurized water flow for an hour or 1.5 hours, both inside and outside the building? How long will the fire roar? What if the water source services multiple buildings, such as the winery, the equipment shed and the visitor center? Is there a back-up generator? If multiple buildings have sprinklers spraying at the same time, their pressures will be different and some possibly less effective.

When it comes to rebuilding, insurance reimbursements and cash-on-hand effectively combine to make many decisions. If a $500,000 building must be rebuilt but it takes an extra $100,000 to bring that building up to today’s code, many will find a way to rebuild spending only the reimbursement allotment. Separately and with regard to insurance reimbursements for grapes, filing claims for fruit can in far less than turning the fruit into sellable wine.

Sometimes getting insurance reimbursements – both for hard assets and for crops – are tougher than one would expect. Even worse, sometimes producers simply are not covered. Many hillside wineries are not covered, or their potential premiums are so high that the cost of insurance pays for a new winery in two years anyway, according to Snowden-Seysses. This is because the mountain peaks experience stronger winds, and the fires creep up there then burn themselves out.

Besides buildings and to the prior point about land management, the expense of managing vast swathes of land can be mind-numbing. In January, Snowden Vineyards, “aiming to be responsible stewards of the land (who aren’t mega rich)”, per Randy Snowden (uncle to Snowden-Seysses), conducted a survey of their ranch with the Napa County Resource Conservation District and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The last fire at the Snowden ranch, currently a “doughnut hole” of unburned land surrounded by land that has burned in the last three years, was in 1937.

Before this meeting, Snowden-Seysses told me that she anticipated two affordable actions: 1) allowing herds of sheep, goats or lama to roam the forest to consume the leaves and underbrush; and/or 2) finding a lumber company and givingthem their fir wood (more sensitive to wildfires than oaks and madrones, even if the fir trees are older so better carbon sinks) in exchange for the cutting and removal. Alas, the closest mill is in Mendocino, so the transportation costs may outweigh the exchange. Still, it remains a possibility.

Interestingly, the Snowden family learned that CalFire offers controlled burning for which the state assumes liability rather than a landowner. Local authorities also offer free assessments for irrigation system efficiency and carbon impact management, all at zero cost and no obligation. They also learned that the 2020 fires on the eastern side of Napa Valley were “light to moderate, as far as forestry management is concerned.” Those on the western side, where woods are heavier and where the percentage of firs and other conifers was higher, suffered bigger and hotter fires for those reasons.

Whatever direction one looks in, there are tough choices in being both reactive and proactive. The point, now, it is be active.

Despite All, the Napa Spirit Continues

Napa Valley is and long has been known to be a tight-knit community. Araujo understands that, “…those who want ‘Napa Style’ and see the Valley as a fancy garden/second home will probably punt. Those who have their heart and soul in wine and in our Valley will always stay and do what it takes to recover and make things better.”

Houston-based Franklin commented, “One thing I did notice was that wineries, bars, restaurants and stores were all in HUGE support of each other. I remember standing in line at a coffee shop in Saint Helena listening to all of the wows and devastation that everyone was experiencing.”

Kajani, whose Carneros harvest finishes in September, said, “Our early season allows our winery to open up to fire-impacted neighbors up valley and assist these evacuated wineries with crushing grapes. We are fortunate to have a generator allowing for seamless operations though the power outages during fires. The Napa Valley is an incredible community and has shown great strength during these horrific fire seasons.”

Time to Hurry Up Then Wait

I am relieved that the Napa community now is holistically taking a proactive stance as “fire season” lengthens and is poised to intensify due to the current drought, but I echo Kajani’s sentiment, “Fingers crossed for a boring fire season.” Ruel similarly said, “I do wonder if it will be like how it never rains on the day you actuallyremember to bring your umbrella. Maybe the year we feel the most prepared, we’ll just get lucky and have a quieter season.”

I would love for colleagues like Maya Dalla Valle of Dalla Valle Vineyards and DVO not to worry about punching down outdoor fermentations due to smoke and ash. Were only there no more stories like that of Hakli’s Newton friend that stayed on Spring Mountain the night of the Glass Fire to save her horses with CalFire. Had she not stayed, CalFire was not obligated to save animals or structures – only people. (She was successful.) I cannot imagine the stress of Bettina Sichel of Laurel Glen Vineyards, destroyed in the 2017 fires, and the rest of Napa in trying to wait up to a month for the results of Guaiacol tests looking for smoke taint then having to decide in the interim – anyway – whether or not to harvest. (Napa producers sent samples to Washington State, Canada and even Australia to try to get results more quickly than those being turned around in the overwhelmed, local ETS lab.)

In the mean time, Napa rebuilds from these last years of devastation in a way that bears witness to the hashtag #NapaStrong attached to social media posts during the fires.

Snowden-Seysses quoted the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, who hails from San Francisco, “‘We have to build back better.’ These projects do create jobs, and frankly, they are the only option off the one-way track to apocalypse we are currently on.” She went on, “Napa needs to bury its electrical lines(*), turn the wine train into a commuter train to get thousands of commuters off the roads, create affordable housing for more workers to live up valley…. All of these things would slash CO2 emissions and slow global warming, the real culprit of these fires.” She pointed out, too, “…that part of the problem with the current “flammability” of California has been our proactive fire extinguishing in the last 200 years!”

To me, it was said best by Chris Howell, Winegrower and General Manager of Cain Vineyard and Winery when he wrote to me after I sent my condolences after reading that the property was destroyed last fall. “Heart-breaking, yes. But it’s a perfect time to help people understand that wine is about a place – the site, the earth, the vines, and about the people, the culture. Wine transcends those of us who make it, and the history is in the bottles. Though two vintages are lost, most (dozens) remain.”

*Per the anonymous contractor, many of Napa’s electrical wires were installed by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in the 1970s. Since then, cables have been stretched and baked while enduring strong winds and earthquakes. They are tired.

Photo by Bruce Warrington and Unsplash 

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