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Updated Oct. 11, 1:00 p.m. PST: At Least 21 Dead and Three Wineries Destroyed as Firefighters Battle Massive Fires in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino

Largest blazes spreading dramatically as conditions worsened on Wednesday; Signorello, Frey and Paradise Ridge burned, along with as many as 2,000 other buildings
Photo by: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Signorello Estate Winery in the aftermath of the blaze

Aaron Romano, Kim Marcus
Posted: October 9, 2017

For our most up-to-date coverage of this story, see "Northern California Vintners Assess Wildfire Damage," updated Oct. 20. For additional coverage, see our Oct. 17 and Oct. 13 updates, and "Damage Updates from Wineries."


UPDATED Oct. 11, 1:00 p.m. PST Cal Fire reports that there are now 22 major fires in the state, and they have burned 170,000 acres and killed at least 21 people. A new fire has sprung up in Sonoma County, and two other small ones have become major concerns: one near Kenwood, one east of Rohnert Park and one east of Boyes Hot Springs.

UPDATED Oct. 11, 11:15 a.m. PST The Napa Valley Vintners organization reports that at least five wineries have significant or total damage and 11 have some damage to the winery, other buildings or vineyards.

UPDATED Oct. 11, 8:45 a.m. PST While Cal Fire has begun to contain some of the smaller fires, firefighters are still struggling with the largest blazes. Two more deaths were confirmed in Sonoma County. The Atlas fire in Napa County has dramatically increased to more than 42,000 acres, from 26,000 in Cal Fire's report last night. The Tubbs fire in Sonoma, around Santa Rosa, and northern Napa counties increased to 28,000 acres, the Nuns fire around the Glen Ellen area has grown to more than 7,600 acres from 5,000 yesterday, while the Partrick fire in western Napa County spread from 1,000 to more than 9,500. In Mendocino County, the Redwood / Potter fire has jumped to 29,500 acres, from yesterday's 21,000.

Cooler temperatures, higher humidity levels and weaker winds on Tuesday allowed firefighters in some of Northern California’s most renowned wine areas to escalate their battle against the devastating wildfires that started Sunday night, spurring an estimated 25,000 people to flee their homes, wiping out entire neighborhoods and scorching more than 125,000 acres. Signorello Estate Winery, Paradise Ridge Winery and Frey Vineyards were burned; the status of many wineries that have been threatened is still unknown.

The spread of the fires in Napa and Sonoma counties slowed markedly from Monday night into Tuesday, in contrast to the dramatically rapid spread that took many communities by surprise on Sunday night. However, a fire in Mendocino County more than doubled in size. Fire officials were still prioritizing the saving of lives over property because of the sheer extent of the fires.

The largest blazes are situated in Napa Valley’s eastern hills, near Atlas Peak; in northern Napa around Calistoga spreading to the northern part of the Sonoma city of Santa Rosa; and in Mendocino County's Redwood Valley. But the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire), the state fire agency, reports that, as of Wednesday mid-day, there are 22 major fires, including blazes spanning the Sonoma towns of Glen Ellen and Kenwood and in the Carneros appellation, as well as in surrounding counties and in Southern California.

The fires ignited Sunday night, stoked by high temperatures, dry conditions and gusting winds that reached 50 to 70 mph in some areas. By Wednesday mid-day, more than 170,000 acres in 11 counties had burned, Cal Fire reported, and 21 fatalities have been confirmed. At least 11 are in Sonoma County, two in Napa County, three in Mendocino County and one in Yuba County.

An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 buildings—including homes, commercial buildings and barns—had burned as of Tuesday afternoon, said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director for Cal Fire.

Smoke from the fires was thick throughout the region, making it difficult to see and breathe. Ash was falling from the sky, landing on grapes still hanging on the vines. Power outages affected many communities, and cell-phone service was limited as well. Residents were cautioned to boil water.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared states of emergency for Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties, along with Butte, Orange, Nevada and Yuba. The California National Guard sent medical evacuation helicopters, firefighting helicopters and military police to assist local law enforcement. During a visit to California’s Office of Emergency Services on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence announced that President Donald Trump had approved federal emergency assistance for the state.


Fire, Smoke and Devastation

Photo by Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris Photo by Paul Kuroda/ZUMA Wire Photo by Josh Sullivan/Getty Images Photo by Josh Sullivan/Getty Images Photo by Napa Valley Register via ZUMA Wire Photo by Gabrielle Lurie/Polaris Photo by Ben Fetzer

Many areas remained under evacuation orders, and roads were closed to allow fire crews to bring the blazes under control. As a result, many residents still did not know the full extent of damage to their properties. Grapes were hanging on the vine unpicked, and vats of fermenting wine sat alone in empty wineries as vintners focused on the safety of their coworkers and families. Those who did not lose unpicked grapes or wine due to heat damage still have to worry about smoke taint from the heavy haze.

None of the largest fires had been contained as of Tuesday afternoon. Firefighters hope they can start bringing the fires under control in the next 24 hours, but winds are forecast to pick up speed on Wednesday, increasing the danger that fires will spread more quickly.

Napa's Atlas Peak

In Napa Valley, the Atlas fire has now burned 26,000 acres, according to Cal Fire, from the Stags Leap area to the northern limits of the city of Napa itself, prompting mass evacuations on the eastern side of the valley.

Signorello Estate Winery was destroyed. "Neither proprietor Ray Signorello, nor the winemaking team, have been able to access the property to fully survey the damage, but we do know the winery and the residence did not survive the fire," said a spokesperson in a statement. "The 2015 vintage of red wines and 2016 vintage of white wines were safely stored off the property in American Canyon. Winemaker Pierre Birebent, the winemaking and vineyard teams were on property fighting fire that evening but retreated when it overcame the building. All 25 employees are safe."

Dozens of other wineries and vineyards were threatened. Some buildings at Stags' Leap Winery were destroyed. Flames spread rapidly on Soda Canyon Road, home to many elite vineyards. While numerous media reports showed a photo of damage to the William Hill Estate sign, the winery has since confirmed that its buildings are intact and it has sustained only minor landscaping and vineyard damage.

Hundreds of guests were evacuated from the Silverado Resort as flames approached the buildings Sunday night; the resort remains closed. California Highway Patrol airlifted two dozen workers off of Atlas Peak late that night, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“I’ve been up all night; we were harvesting and had to evacuate,” said Elizabeth Vianna, Chimney Rock winemaker and general manager, when reached by phone Monday morning. “The fire came very close to our vineyards before evacuation, but I think the winery is OK.”

Jennifer Scott, director of communications at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, reports that all of the employees of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars are safe. "Right now our wineries have been affected minimally," she said. "At Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, our team is closely monitoring the situation because it has been changing so quickly."

Ben Fetzer
In Mendocino County, the Redwood / Potter fire has spread to 21,000 acres and killed at least three people.

Amuse Bouche owner John Schwartz lives close to the Atlas fire. “We’re still fighting up here,” he wrote in an email, adding that Atlas Peak Road is a “horror scene.”

After earlier reports that flames were close to Darioush, winery president Dan de Polo said the winery is OK for now. “Our families and staff are safe,” he said. “We were on property fighting fires and smoldering landscaping brush for hours today; [it's] still not over. The area is still closed officially.” But he reports that their vineyards are safe.

The Napa Valley Vintners estimates that 90 percent of the appellation's grapes had been picked before the fires started; what remains on the vines is Cabernet Sauvignon, a thick-skinned variety that is more resistant to smoke taint. While the organization is still collecting reports from members, and most in the most dangerous areas have not checked in, it says that out of 120, at least five wineries have significant or total damage and 11 have some damage to the winery, other buildings or vineyards.

Sonoma Confronts Raging Infernos

The Tubbs fire, which began near Calistoga in northern Napa Valley, exploded from 200 acres to nearly 20,000 acres in a matter of hours, moving into Sonoma County, where it damaged vineyards in the Fountaingrove District area, Sonoma’s newest appellation. (As of late Tuesday night, Cal Fire reported that it had reached 28,000 acres.)

"We escaped at the last minute through the flames," said Anthony Perliss of Perliss Estates in Calistoga. "The winds and flames were intense—I was trying to put it out with a garden hose. I saw the garden go up in flames. Not sure if the vineyard or homes survived."

Soon the flames spread into the northern neighborhoods of the city of Santa Rosa. The blaze moved quickly and jumped Highway 101, the major artery through the county, burning businesses, high schools and homes. The Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel and Paradise Ridge Winery were just two of dozens of businesses burned. (Though local media had earlier reported that Vintners Inn and John Ash & Co. restaurant had burned, the owners confirmed that the property is safe, but had evacuated guests and is now closed.) Sutter and Kaiser Hospitals were forced to evacuate patients as the fire approached.

Paradise Ridge
Paradise Ridge Winery was among those destroyed.

The Nuns fire burned in the Glen Ellen, Sonoma Valley and Bennett Valley areas and had grown to 5,000 acres as of noon Monday. It had merged with another fire that had been burning in the hills around Glen Ellen. Both blazes threatened numerous wineries there. Marcia Mickelson Kunde of Kunde Family Winery reported on Monday, "The southern part of the ranch was burning last night but we were able to get it to stop on its way to the rest of the ranch and winery. Glen Ellen and Kenwood are just decimated." The owners of BR Cohn and Benziger both confirmed their wineries were safe.

Facing down flames that had many predicting the winery's destruction, Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma posted on social media on Tuesday that it was "still fighting the good fight." On Tuesday night, the owners updated: "Our property sustained some fire damage but our winery and structures are all intact. We unfortunately lost our family house on the property, but our family and employees are all safe."

Bevan Cellars winemaker Russell Bevan lives in the Bennett Valley region of Sonoma but was working in Napa when the evacuations started. “When [my wife] left, all of our neighbors’ homes and vineyards were on fire,” he said. “We’re hoping for the best. We get to return there today hopefully. But I’m stuck at the winery trying to make sure we don’t lose this vintage, as we don’t have power.”

Sonoma wine organizations are still assessing the damage to vineyards and the community. Calling the fires "devastating," Sonoma County Winegrowers president Karissa Kruse noted, "While 90 percent of the winegrapes have been harvested, there were still grapes in the vineyards that were scheduled to be picked in the next 10 days."

Farther south, yet another fire was raging in Carneros. Nicholson Ranch Winery was threatened, but contrary to some media reports that it burned, its Facebook page reports that the winery escaped being engulfed by the flames and the cellared wine appears safe; power is still out and they are evaluating the extent of the damage.

An email from Artesa winery in Carneros reported, “The fires did reach our vineyards, but our winery was thankfully spared.”

Mendocino's Growing Fire

Up north, the fire in Mendocino had increased to 21,000 acres by Tuesday morning. The Mendocino sheriff’s department reports that strong wind knocked over power lines in Potter Valley early Monday morning. A sergeant on patrol spotted a ground fire that quickly swept toward Redwood Valley. By that afternoon, the Potter Valley and Redwood Valley fires had merged and grown, damaging multiple buildings and forcing evacuations in Redwood Valley, Eagle Peak and parts of Potter Valley.

Nathan Frey of Frey Vineyards reported on Tuesday that his family's winery is gone. "Our winery has burned down, and most of the family homes, though our warehouse is intact," he said. "The homes of many friends and neighbors also burned, and our heart goes out to all of them."

Jake Fetzer of Masút in Redwood Valley only recently built a winery in the Eagle Peak appellation overlooking the valley. "It's been devastating in Redwood Valley," he said. "We were told to evacuate in Eagle Peak, but stayed to help with our dozers and water truck. Unfortunately, many of our friends lost everything."

Ben Fetzer
Staff at Ben and Jake Fetzer's Masút winery in Eagle Peak tried to battle the flames.

“Lots and lots of vineyards and homes in Redwood Valley are gone,” said Bernadette Bryne, executive director of Mendocino Winegrowers Inc. The winegrowers are trying to gather information and provide resources for its members, some of whom are struggling to harvest their grapes. Bryne says most of the white grapes are in, but estimates that only 50 percent of Mendocino’s red grapes have been picked.

This report will be updated as further details come in.

Additional reporting contributed by James Laube, Augustus Weed, Tim Fish, MaryAnn Worobiec, Mitch Frank and Dana Nigro.

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Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 9, 2017 10:10pm ET
Oh my, how horrific. Please be safe everyone.
Mark Pfouts
Edmonds —  October 10, 2017 1:06am ET
Woke up to the smoke this morning in Napa after a weekend of wonderful wine tastings. We know that people we were in contact with are being affected by this tragedy. Our hearts go out to all those affected. We pray for everyone there.
Wayland Irby
Elk Grove, CA USA —  October 10, 2017 1:27am ET
Our hopes, thoughts, and wishes for a speedy recovery go out to all affected by these fires. Lives of both humans or animals harmed; and any homes or secular work places lost or damaged are a tragic loss to all of those affected by these infernos. May the efforts of all those tirelessly fighting these fires on multiple fronts prove to be a safe and speedy end to this devasting tragedy.

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