Many vine­yards sur­vive blazes in­tact

They ‘saved ... lives’ by act­ing as a nat­u­ral fire­break, of­fi­cial says.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Ge­of­frey Mo­han

Pal­maz used hoes, shov­els and rakes to keep flames from his fam­ily’s 19th cen­tury vine­yard es­tate home on the flanks of Mt. St. Ge­orge in east­ern Napa County.

But he didn’t have to worry about his vines. They’re green, very much alive, and a stark con­trast to more than 500 acres of oak, man­zanita and grass­land charred by the At­las fire as it tore across Pal­maz’s prop­erty.

As the Napa and Sonoma val­leys strug­gle through days of a rag­ing firestorm that has al­ready claimed at least 29 lives, many vineChris­tian yards in the nearly 100,000acre burn ar­eas ap­pear to be emerg­ing largely un­scathed.

The lush rows of green vines stand in con­trast to tens of thou­sands of acres of oak wild­lands, as well as en­tire res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods, that have been scorched. For all the fright­en­ing im­ages of flames con­sum­ing winer­ies and tast­ing rooms and loom­ing over the back­ground of the re­gion’s post­card-per­fect vine­yards, the wine coun­try blazes so far ap­pear to be mainly an ur­ban catas­tro­phe.

Four­teen peo­ple were killed in Sonoma County, mostly around the city of Santa Rosa, where the Tubbs fire con­sumed more than 2,800 sub­ur­ban tract homes as well as ho­tels, restau­rants and other fa­cil­i­ties that have grown around the re­gion’s wine in­dus­try, which adds $57 bil­lion to the

state’s econ­omy.

The toll from those losses is ex­pected to be enor­mous. But so far, only a hand­ful of win­ery build­ings have been de­stroyed, while a scat­ter­ing of oth­ers have suf­fered par­tial dam­age, ac­cord­ing to early as­sess­ments.

“Vine­yards save lives,” said Jen­nifer Put­nam, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Napa Val­ley Grape­grow­ers, who has a col­lege de­gree in forestry. “They saved prop­erty and lives in Napa County. It’s as clear as it can be.”

Even at Napa’s Sig­norello Es­tate, where a build­ing hous­ing the tast­ing room burned to the ground Sun­day night, 40 acres of decades-old vines sur­vived, owner Ray Sig­norello Jr. said Thurs­day.

“The vines ap­pear to be al­most 100% in­tact,” he said. “The fire just came up to the edge of the vine­yard and stopped.”

This year’s crop had been har­vested, and was un­scathed, he added. Bar­reled wine, stored in a sep­a­rate steel-sided build­ing, also was un­dam­aged, he said.

Fire of­fi­cials have said they con­sid­ered the rel­a­tively open space of vine­yards, which hold more mois­ture than oak forests, to be a nat­u­ral fire­break that al­lowed their forces to fo­cus on pro­tect­ing pop­u­lated ar­eas and struc­tures.

Fire crews “use the vine­yards to their ad­van­tage to en­sure that they can stop the spread of the fire or stop the front of the fire from com­ing through,” said Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox, bat­tal­ion chief for North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

“I have seen some dam­age to some of the crops, where the heat was just so in­tense it burned the ac­tual vine, but that’s not wide­spread,” Cox said.

The wine in­dus­try had the odds in its fa­vor be­fore the wind-driven fires erupted. Only about 10% of Napa County is given over to grow­ing grapes. A sim­i­lar share of Sonoma County is planted in grapes, much of it in the open flat­lands along the Rus­sian River.

As much as 85% of the grapes had al­ready been picked but the vines had not yet gone dor­mant. There also was very lit­tle cover crop between rows, which is planted to re­store nu­tri­ents and pre­vent soil runoff.

When dried out, that growth can pro­vide “lad­der” fuel that can bring f lames up to the vines.

Pal­maz fought that kind of grass and brush around build­ings, and lost a guest­house. But the three-story Henry Ha­gen es­tate, built in 1876, was spared, as well as the ap­prox­i­mately 10% of his 640 acres that are planted in vine­yards.

“I’ve been out there with a shovel and a hoe and rakes for the last 38 hours — with my sis­ter and my wife — and I can tell you th­ese vine­yards are ab­so­lutely a god­send,” Pal­maz said.

“Ninety per­cent of the prop­erty is wild­land. It all burned … ex­cept the vine­yard.”

The win­ery, a 110,000square-foot bunker dug into Mt. St. Ge­orge, suf­fered su­per­fi­cial dam­age as the fire swept di­rectly over it, Pal­maz said.

“When you came up to it the next morn­ing, you had to look pretty closely for ev­i­dence of fire,” Pal­maz said. “Land­scape stuff was on fire. The lit­tle land­scape lights were melted in the park­ing lot. Lit­tle stuff like that. But the fa­cil­ity is all rocks.”

Some vines were charred but still alive, Pal­maz said.

It may be some time be­fore dam­aged vines can be as­sessed, and many burn ar­eas re­main off lim­its, of­fi­cials in both coun­ties cau­tioned.

“They can be heat-dam­aged,” Put­nam said. “That’s where we’re re­ally go­ing to have to wait and see. They won’t show the ef­fects in­stantly. It’s not like a piece of kin­dling that goes up. It’s more like a house plant that you don’t water.”

Still, Put­nam has been shocked at how much vine­yard acreage was spared the worst of the flames. She has ob­served fire “stop­ping abruptly as if you drew a line in the grass.”

In neigh­bor­ing Sonoma County, of­fi­cials were strug­gling to as­sess dam­age. But ru­mors of the demise of winer­ies such as Chateau St. Jean proved false, while the flames that de­stroyed Par­adise Ridge some­how spared the vines. Far­ther south, a his­toric home at Gund­lach Bund­schu vine­yard burned to the ground; the state of the vines was not known.

Karissa Kruse, pres­i­dent of the Sonoma County Wine­grow­ers, said she also saw re­mark­able con­trasts between green vines and charred sub­ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods near Santa Rosa.

“The ends of the vine rows, you could see the cover crop was burned, but then ev­ery­thing else was just fine,” said Kruse, who lost her home in the Foun­tain­grove neigh­bor­hood.

At times, how­ever, the fires proved pow­er­ful enough to turn com­par­a­tively lush vine­yards into fuel.

“We’ve seen the whole spec­trum,” said Tony Line­gar, Sonoma County’s agri­cul­tural com­mis­sioner. “We’ve seen where [vine­yards] prob­a­bly helped and acted like a fire­break, and then where the fire’s just so hot it just mowed right through it.”

Line­gar’s coun­ter­part in Napa, Greg Clark, said vine dam­age may not be ev­i­dent un­til spring, but that so far it looks as though flames that went through vine­yards did so quickly, with­out ig­nit­ing vines.

“There may be some ar­eas that are smaller blocks of vine­yards, tucked up in the hills, that were sur­rounded by fuel that maybe didn’t fare so well,” Clark said. “But we won’t know that un­til we can get up there.”

Even as flames ad­vanced to­ward Cal­is­toga and Gey­serville mid­week, vine­yards all over both val­leys were be­ing picked of the re­main­ing grapes, largely the highly valu­able caber­net va­ri­eties, some of which can fetch prices of $50,000 a ton.

Cal­i­for­nia 29 was open through the heart of Napa Val­ley, al­low­ing some of the re­gion’s big­gest pro­duc­ers to con­tinue ship­ping this year’s re­lease, Clark said. Most ware­houses are in the south­ern part of the county and near the air­port, away from the burn ar­eas, he added.

Soil dam­age and ero­sion is un­likely to pose a prob­lem in vine­yards, but grow­ers will have to take mea­sures to con­trol runoff from neigh­bor­ing burn ar­eas dur­ing up­com­ing win­ter rains, Clark said.

It is un­likely grapes re­main­ing on vines will suf­fer “smoke taint,” be­cause most had al­ready reached ma­tu­rity and were ex­posed to smoke for a short time, in­dus­try of­fi­cials said.

Al­ready strug­gling with en­demic la­bor short­ages, vine­yard own­ers now have to con­tend with road clo­sures and evac­u­a­tions that were mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to get work­ers into the fields, which can be picked as late as Novem­ber, Line­gar said.

Still, work­ers im­pro­vised ways to get to vine­yards, while trucks laden with grapes found side roads to winer­ies, most of which re­mained in op­er­a­tion.

“I can tell you I saw quite a few grape trucks this morn­ing, haul­ing gon­do­las full of fruit,” Line­gar said. “So grow­ers are ac­tively try­ing to get the fruit off. I know that.”

Even Pal­maz har­vested an acre Mon­day night, 24 hours af­ter flames tore across his prop­erty.

“For us,” Pal­maz said, “it was a lit­tle sym­bolic.”

Michael Short As­so­ci­ated Press

SO FAR, only a hand­ful of win­ery build­ings have been de­stroyed in the blazes. Above, smoke rises near a vine­yard as a fire burns Mon­day east of Napa, Calif.

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