​California fires – then and now


Elaine begins this three-part, unparalleled assessment of the impact of wildfires on the California wine industry with the most recent, alarming news. 

Parts of California have again declared a state of emergency due to wildfires. High temperatures and winds have fuelled fires in multiple parts of the state. Most recently, the town of Goleta at the southern end of Santa Barbara County faced evacuation orders as a house fire quickly spread through the surrounding hills. While vineyards are not in the areas of the fires, the homes of some members of the wine industry just north of the area have been lost to the fires. 

A wildfire in the far north of California is now the most dangerous in the state. It has roared into the mountains of southern Oregon, leading to widespread evacuations, loss of homes, and at least one fatality. At the end of June, Lake County suffered the first fire of the season, forcing evacuations. Lake County has been hit by wildfires with increasing regularity, seeing multiple fires in 2015, 2017 and now 2018. The fire there is under control.

But soon after the Lake County fire started, a fire in Yolo County to the south east quickly spread west into neighbouring Napa Valley, covering wine country and the Bay Area with smoke. This fire has now been burning for almost two weeks, thanks to the challenges of the mountain landscape, though firefighters are now gratefully getting it under control. For residents of the area, the proximity of the fires, the dry conditions, the winds, and the smoke-filled air all too readily re-ignite tension not yet fully released by those of us who survived last year’s wine-country fires.

As has now been widely reported, the last three months of 2017 brought the worst fires in the history of California, beginning with the devastating wine-country fires that burned at least 245,000 acres (99,150 ha) and almost 8,900 buildings, culminating in fires throughout Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Those caused less structural damage than the fires up north but burned far more acreage. The southern California fires later also led to devastating mudslides through the town of Montecito in Santa Barbara County once the rainy season hit. Although neither these fires nor the mudslides hit wine country directly, many from wine country live in and near the Montecito community, commuting to their vineyards to the north. The area is so close that the whole region, including the people of wine country, felt the impact.

In both California’s North Coast and Santa Barbara County, fundraisers continue, as does rebuilding. Starting a new wildfire season so early this year has residents on edge. People are hoping heatwaves through the country decrease, that winds decline, and that we can make it to the rainy season relatively unscathed. The worries are not unfounded. As Jancis reported in 2017, wildfires have been increasing in viticultural areas throughout the world. Scientists have confirmed that the increased frequency of wildfires is one of the impacts of global warming.

The reality of last year’s fires has changed multiple aspects of facing fires in general. When it comes to firefighting, logistics have been honed and knowledge has increased. New firefighting technology has been created for helicopters to improve response times by making it easier for pilots to access public water for faster water drops. Fire crew numbers have not increased but they have started positioning themselves in high-risk fire areas earlier in the season to be prepared before fires even start. Fire crews have also been able to both improve and increase the equipment needed for fighting fires.

After the global attention focused on the California fires in 2017, a sizeable federal budget increase was approved for the National Forest Service to use towards fire suppression through forest maintenance. The previous lack of spending on forest maintenance was one of the underlying issues that fed fires last year. Fire prevention education is also increasing with programmes targeting private landowners to teach the appropriate removal of vegetation.

Assessments have shown that the lack of tree maintenance around power lines led to the majority of the fires in wine country last year. The analysis of fires so far released shows that sizeable branches, and in some cases entire trees, hitting power lines was to blame for sparking the fires. PG&E, the power company that maintains those power lines, is responsible for maintaining the vegetation around them as well. Lawsuits from people throughout wine country against the power company are now pending. In addition, the state government is assessing the findings to determine the degree of responsibility PG&E have in repaying damages from the fire. The results of these proceedings could radically change the management of electricity in the state of California.

See part 2: the reality of the 2017 California fires today