What Hugh saw in California


On this Thanksgiving Day we're publishing this heart-rending report from Hugh Johnson, who is just back from northern California. 

We arrived in the Napa Valley a month after the fires started, fanned by a freak gale on 8 October, and two weeks after they were finally under control. We drove over the hills to the east from UC Davis, near Sacramento, in mist and drizzle. Highway 128 winds round the huge Lake Berryessa. By the time we got there, some ten crow-miles from Rutherford, we were passing isolated patches of burnt grass and trees, and the smell of wet cinders was in the air. The hills were covered with tall yellow grass after spring rain and a hot summer. Evidently sparks had blown hundreds of yards to start new grass fires, some so local that the oaks above them seemed unharmed.

Nearer to Napa, though, whole hills behind Atlas Peak were in ashes. You could judge the speed and height of the fires by the tops of the trees; redwoods were sometimes only scorched halfway, still with green tops. Houses are widely scattered up here; a few incinerated, many untouched; disaster on one side of the road, survival on the other, seemingly at random. We drove over the steep and winding Oakville Grade to Glen Ellen in Sonoma. A vast area of forest and perhaps half the houses in it had burnt. Tree crews were still felling burnt trees along the road.

California’s towns are so generous with space that a neighbourhood can burn while the rest of town is untouched. Napa city was hemmed in by fires in the hills to east (Atlas Peak) and west. Friends told us they had to run when they saw flames upwind (and there was a strong unpredictable wind). They saved their dog but nothing else, and were lucky to have a car in their drive. You couldn’t outrun the flames. So many people were compulsorily evacuated that highways were jammed; for a while the Silverado Trail was closed (the fire reached it at Stags Leap) and Highway 29 was the only way out of the Napa Valley.

The sight of a burnt house is horrific. Only the floorplan, a chimney and a washing machine indicates what was there. The flames were so hot that concrete caught fire and aluminum engine blocks of parked cars melted into bizarre pale pools. Santa Rosa came off worst. Three northern suburbs were largely destroyed – though even here one side of a street could be apparently unharmed while the other has virtually disappeared.

Vineyards seem to be effective firebreaks. The edge rows scorch, but fire normally can’t reach the middle. The aftermath of pollution is another matter. We heard Roger Boulton, Professor of Enology at UC Davis, talk about his fears. Smoke taint in the unpicked grapes (about 10% of the harvest, much of it Cabernet Sauvignon), but potentially worse the toxic materials in ashes leaching into parched soil when it rains.

The statistics are terrible; 245,00 acres burnt, about 42 people dead, nearly 9,000 buildings destroyed. There are several lawsuits against electricity companies for neglecting power lines (which started some of the fires).

All the more reason to buy a ticket for the fundraising California wine tasting at 67 Pall Mall on Saturday 2 December. I hope to be there myself.

Photographs by Red Johnson.