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  • Alder Yarrow
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  • Alder Yarrow
19 Oct 2017

19 October 2017 The death toll as a result of these terrible fires in northern California wine country has risen to 42 but some rain is forecast for today, raising hopes of increased containment. Today we republish Alder's very thorough report on the effect of the fires on the northern California wine community. (Fires are also raging in northern Portugal and Galicia, with considerable loss of life, and threats to wine regions such as Rías Baixas.) 

17 October 2017 Elaine wrote I found out this morning our home is intact and now also out of danger. The town of Sonoma and my area just east of it was in quite serious threat for much of a week and the fire teams put in very hard work to protect it. On the other side of the Mayacamas, To Kalon vineyard was under quite serious threat but today they managed to push the fire back far enough to then cut a fire break and it is safe. That fire is now advancing on Rutherford so Inglenook and others in that area are not out of danger.Very many areas have had their evacuation orders lifted and many of the fires are under control, still burning but with increasing containment. The winds have settled so now the issue is that smoke has settled into both counties and to go outside people have to wear quite serious breathing masks. 

16 October 2017 See also Elaine's early report Fires sweep through Napa, Sonoma and beyond

Forty people are confirmed dead. More than 172 people are still reported missing. More than 214,000 acres (86,602 hectares) and over 5,700 homes have been consumed in flames. Evacuations have displaced more than 100,000 people, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. And sadly, these numbers will continue to grow. A week after explosive, fast-moving wildfires swept through parts of Napa and Sonoma, I had hoped to provide something of a full damage assessment, assuming the situation would be under control. But the epic disaster in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties remains far from over. Despite the two largest conflagrations being nearly 60% contained, three more fires have now begun to encroach on both the town of Sonoma, and the heart of Napa Valley's wine region. And as I rise early on Sunday to file this story, I can hear strong winds blowing the autumn leaves in my back yard with the kind of intensity that woke many of us the night of 8 October.

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That night, winds across Northern California gusted at speeds exceeding 70 miles (113 km) per hour, sending tree branches crashing into electrical transmission lines in many forested areas of northern California. A source from the utility company Pacific Gas and Electric has confirmed that these winds brought down power lines and blew transformers, which almost certainly caused a number of the more than 60 fires that sprang up within the space of an hour. Fanned by the intense winds, these many small fires became several raging infernos that swept down through dry, wooded hillsides into the populated areas of Napa and Sonoma counties, giving some residents only a matter of minutes to evacuate before their homes and businesses were utterly destroyed. In some cases, such as the popular destination of Calistoga, entire towns were forced to evacuate, leaving tens of thousands of people temporarily homeless, often with only the clothes on their backs.

Helicopters mobilised that evening  rescued 42 people and several pets from the firestorm. Some people, trapped by the flames, survived by submerging themselves in pools for hours on end, miraculously emerging the next day with their faces burned, but alive. Others escaped narrowly after being woken up by heroic members of local law enforcement, whose recently released bodycam footage demonstrates the chaos and terror.

Ray Signorello, on vacation in Canada with his two young children, received a frantic call from his wife at 10.45 pm on Sunday 8 October, telling him that flames were coming down the hillside towards the Napa home and winery that he and his father built starting in 1987.

'She was telling me that the whole thing was going to burn down, and I told her not to overreact', says Signorello. 'We'd had fires in the distance before and they'd always peter out. I didn't grasp what was happening. She told me this was different, and that she was loading the car and leaving.'

As Signorello's wife left their home with the few valuables she could gather quickly, the winery crew arrived hoping to help. But after only an hour of moving equipment and spraying things down with hoses, they had to flee themselves, as the winery was engulfed, as captured in a mobile phone photograph above right.

'They said it came through like a tornado', continues Signorello. 'I have cameras and computers that let me monitor things remotely. Everything went offline at 12.30 am.'

Only a bit of the stone façade and some metal remain standing, as shown in the photograph below taken several days later.

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Tucked up under Atlas Peak on the eastern edge of Napa Valley, Signorello Winery was one of the first confirmed casualties of what became known as the Atlas fire.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Mayacamas Mountains, the Tubbs fire was busy laying waste to a huge swathe of the town of Santa Rosa.

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Even the most seasoned firefighters and emergency responders have expressed disbelief at the intensity and speed of the wind-driven flames, which moved through some neighbourhoods faster than cars could drive. The areas of Santa Rosa subjected to the brunt of the initial fire were completely and eerily levelled, as if by a bomb blast. In many cases, only the foundations remain, covered in several feet of ash. Next to some of the structures, the husks of cars can be seen oozing now-hardened rivers of molten metal from their undersides.

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The electrical disruption that helped begin this devastation continues to make it difficult for anyone to fully understand and chart the scope of its impact. Electrical service for huge swathes of Napa and Sonoma counties was cut off during the initial wind storm, darkening many towns and completely eliminating cell-phone coverage. This lack of communication no doubt swelled the number of people still reported missing, and as services begin to be restored, the numbers are, thankfully, declining.

Many people, myself included, are trying to get a handle on the extent of the damage thus far, but the lack of communication, waves of mandatory evacuations, scores of closed thoroughfares, and the continued advance of flames have made anything resembling an initial damage assessment impossible. As with most disasters at this scale, rumours and speculation abound, exacerbated by social media's easy distribution mechanisms.

To the best of my knowledge, and according to information reported in various press outlets, it appears that as of yesterday, 14 October, 16 wineries have been more or less destroyed in the fires, including the Napa wineries Helena View Johnson, Paras Vineyard, Patland Estate, Pulido-Walker, Roy Estate, Segassia Estate, Signorello, Sill Family Vineyards, VinRoc and White Rock Vineyards. In Sonoma, the wineries deemed mostly destroyed include Paradise Ridge, Korbin Kameron and Ancient Oak Cellars.

Many others have sustained various levels of damage ranging from a light singeing to the loss of one or more buildings, including Darioush, Hagafen, Mayacamas, Robert Sinskey, Stags' Leap Winery, Alta Napa Valley, Artesa, Domaine Carneros, Elan, Holman Cellars, James Cole Estate, Jarvis Estate, Palmaz Vineyards, Quixote, Regusci Ranch, Robinson Family, Hans Fahden, Storybook Mountain and William Hill in Napa, along with Chateau St Jean, Gundlach Bundschu, La Rochelle, Glen Ellen Winery, Nicholson Ranch, Hamel Family, Kenwood, MacLeod, Mayo Family, Scribe and Sky Vineyards in Sonoma.

In Mendocino county, Backbone Vineyard, Frey Vineyards, and Oster Wine Cellars were destroyed, with Golden Vineyards in Redwood Valley emerging merely scorched.

These lists will undoubtedly grow, or need revision, in the days to come, as communications are fully restored, and mandatory evacuation orders are lifted.

As the two main fires, Tubbs and Atlas, become a majority contained, focus has recently shifted to several other fires, including the Nuns fire, which has begun to march down the hillsides of the Mayacamas range towards some of Napa Valley's most iconic vineyards. A photograph by Ted Hall of Long Meadow Ranch and Winery taken 14 October shows a 747 supertanker just after releasing its load of fire retardant above the hillsides of Rutherford and Oakville.

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As of the morning of 15 October, the fire continued to burn down the hillsides on either side of the Oakville Grade [the cross road running under the words  'Martha's Vineyard' on this map] dangerously close to iconic properties such as Inglenook, Robert Mondavi Winery, Far Niente and others.

The scale and impact of this disaster can begin to be appreciated only by looking at a map. The image below (click to enlarge) from one of several online sources shows the extent of the Sonoma and Napa fires, with areas confirmed burned in yellow, and with actively progressing fires in red, orange, and black circles.

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Like many, I am receiving calls and text messages from around the world asking about the current state of affairs in California. Most are asking some variation of the question, 'How bad is it?' The answer, unfortunately, is pretty bad.

These fires are a natural disaster of epic proportions. Not on the scale of the still unfolding hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico, but certainly among the worst natural disasters California has experienced since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. And just as with many such incidents of devastation, both sides of human nature are manifest.

Much to everyone's horror, looting has occurred in several evacuated areas. Sonoma County police and sheriff's deputies have arrested at least five individuals for looting, including one who was caught stealing from a firefighter's truck. Incidents of price gouging are also being reported in the wake of the disaster. Most sickeningly, an individual arsonist was seen lighting new fires in Sonoma county's Russian River Valley using a road flare, and unfortunately escaped without being apprehended.

These small number of incidents aside, the outpouring of humanitarian and community support in the midst of this disaster has been significant and heartwarming. The California wine industry has long been marked by strong bonds of solidarity, and those have been on full display in the past week, as wineries, restaurants, wine lovers and many Bay Area communities mobilise to raise funds, donate goods and feed both evacuees and the apparently tireless crews battling the blazes. Some of these crews are volunteer firefighters from the Oregon and Washington wine regions, who have driven their equipment south without waiting for requests to do so. They have joined thousands of California fire fighters and first responders, National Guard troops, and crews of male and female inmates from California prisons, whose good behaviour gives them the opportunity to volunteer for training and deployment in such incidents. Airbnb lists hundreds of hosts opening their homes to evacuees for free.

The true impact of these fires will not be known for some time. As luck would have it, the vast majority of wineries in Napa and Sonoma had harvested most of their fruit. Those whose wineries had to be evacuated will have to contend with some fermentations left overlong and untended in wineries, so extended maceration may become a signature of this harvest for some.

Many wineries construct their crush pads in a way that inadvertently gave them protection in this fast-moving fire. Even Signorello confirms that his 2017 and 2016 wines seem to have come through the inferno fairly unscathed. 'The flames came right up to within 15 feet of [the crush pad and barrel storage], and stopped there. It's just gravel and blacktop, so there wasn't any combustible material', he says. 'We got extremely lucky. I've always stored my finished wines offsite, though I have to say I haven't always had good luck with that.' (Signorello lost 15,000 cases in the arson-caused fire at Mare Island in 2005.)

As for the vineyards themselves, with a few exceptions, many vineyards not only escaped with some light scorching at the edges, in some cases they played vital roles in halting the advance of the flames. As you can see in the photograph below, fires often reach the edges of vineyards and find that there is simply not enough combustible material to continue burning, especially when the rows have been ploughed or the grass cut short.

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The fact that much fruit was harvested already, and veraison long passed, should hopefully reduce the chances of smoke taint in all but the longest hanging grapes, the rest of which are being frantically harvested even as the fires continue to rage.

The largest impact will be on the thousands of people who lost their homes and businesses, many of whom work in the wine industry. Combine those losses with the lost tourism revenue, both in the immediate and longer term future, and the scale of damage to California wine country will be significant.

Financial help has been offered in the form of fundraisers and promotions from places as far away as New Zealand, and every little bit counts. I highly encourage anyone moved by the scope of this tragedy to offer what they can. In my opinion, the organisations best positioned to assist are the NapaValley Community Foundation and a fund for North Bay Fire Relief set up by Redwood Credit Union, although dozens of individual fundraising efforts have been created through sites such as GoFundMe.

Even if you're not in a position to donate money, I hope everyone will do their part through purchasing and drinking northern California wines in the months to come, and perhaps planning a visit to the many wineries whose facilities will remain unscathed by this disaster. [See, for example, the Sonoma Cabernets Elaine recommended last Thursday and Friday - JR]

Late afternoon yesterday, notifications came through that the mandatory evacuation orders for the entire town of Calistoga and the remaining areas of the city of Napa have been lifted, allowing people to return to their homes. This is a very good sign. The main highways into and out of Napa are open and will remain so provided the fires do not encroach in the coming days, but almost certainly they will continue to be filled with fire fighting equipment for the coming week. Authorities' latest estimates are for the fires to be fully contained by Friday, so anyone planning a supportive trip to Napa or Sonoma would do well to wait a week.

Wine country will rebuild, that much is certain. Just as the signs that have begun to appear around Sonoma proclaim: 'the love in the air is thicker than the smoke.'

Photos courtesy of George Rose, Signorello Vineyards and Ted Hall.