Vine­yards may have lim­ited wild­fire dam­age

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Ge­of­frey Mo­han LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

LOS AN­GE­LES – Chris­tian Pal­maz used hoes, shov­els and rakes to keep flames from his fam­ily’s 19th-cen­tury vine­yard es­tate home on the flanks of Mount 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 28 lives, many vine­yards in the nearly 100,000-acre burn ar­eas ap­pear to be emerg­ing largely un­scathed.

The vine­yards stand in stark 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 win­ery build­ings 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.

Thir­teen peo­ple were killed in and around the city of Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, where the Tubbs fire con­sumed more than 1,500 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 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 per­cent 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, Sig­norello 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 con­cen­trate on pro­tect­ing pop­u­lated ar­eas and struc­tures.

About 10 per­cent 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.

The wine in­dus­try had the odds in its fa­vor be­fore the wind-driven fires erupted – as much as 85 per­cent 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 flames 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 per­cent 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 110,000-square-foot bunker dug into Mount 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.”

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