Updated: Aug. 20, 12:00 p.m. ET
Wildfires have joined the pandemic and the economy on the list of 2020 challenges for California winemakers. An unseasonal and unprecedented series of thunderstorms blew through Northern California late Sunday night and early Monday morning, bringing lightning strikes that ignited dozens of blazes. A significant heat wave coupled with persistent winds stoked the fires, five of which are within Napa County.
Cal Fire, the state's fire agency, has named this cluster and two fires in Sonoma County the Lake-Napa Unit (LNU) Lightning Complex. Officials reported at noon Aug. 20 that the blazes had grown to burn a combined 131,000 acres, with no containment so far. There have been two confirmed casualties related to the fires so far—a utility worker working with firefighters to combat the LNU fires and a pilot whose helicopter crashed during a water drop on flames near Fresno.
Each of the Napa fires are located in the rural eastern hills above St. Helena and Rutherford. On the night of Aug. 18, one of the fires, dubbed Hennessey, exploded in size and spread southeast into neighboring Solano County toward Vacaville (population 100,000), a city between San Francisco and Sacramento, prompting widespread evacuations. The fires had mostly been consuming dry vegetation in the first 48 hours, but by the morning of Aug. 19, more than 50 structures had burned, with thousands threatened.
The Hennessey fire and nearby Gamble fire initially endangered wineries and vineyards near Pope and Chiles valleys, including Napa's oldest family-owned winery, Nichelini. Winemaker Aimée Sunseri, a fifth-generation Nichelini, told Wine Spectator that several small fires all started to come together around their property, but that the winery was unharmed. "We lost a cabin and barn, but the firefighters were able to keep it from crossing the highway. If it weren't for the firefighters, [the winery] might not be standing." Sunseri added that she has no idea how their nearby vineyards fared. "That's our next concern—whether or not we will even be able to harvest this year."
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Green and Red winery in Chiles Valley also had a close call. "The fire is to the east and south of our vineyards, with the winds in our favor," Green and Red winemaker Michael Penn said. He added that the fire came at the worst moment. The winery had its first pick of the year scheduled for yesterday. "We were just working on our cleaning and harvest preparations when the evacuation orders came through," said Penn. "Moving from a health crisis right into an environmental crisis is a lot to ask of a winemaker!"
Staff at Stanley Cheng's Hestan Vineyards, situated in a remote corner of far southeastern Napa Valley, watched as the fire raced through a nearby canyon last night. "The fire went by, and it was a little frightening," said winemaker Jeff Gaffner. "It was a ridge and a half over, and stayed there. Everyone is nervous, but we're feeling fortunate."
Though the fire has mostly spread to the south and east outside of Napa County, there are still pockets burning in the eastern hills, including near the Pritchard Hill area, home to Chappellet, Continuum, Colgin and others, as well as Atlas Peak, one of the hardest-hit areas during the 2017 fires, and the eastern foothills above Yountville and Stags Leap District.
"We are thankful to share the news that everyone is safe at Chappellet, and we're deeply grateful for the outpouring of concern and offers to help," Cyril Chappellet told Wine Spectator. "Naturally, we are monitoring the situation very closely. Because fire is always a possibility in California, Chappellet is very well prepared, and we have a thorough fire response plan in place, which includes things like an in-house fire chief, an on-site fire truck, pressurized water tanks, and strategic fire breaks that have been established around the vineyard."
Schatzi Throckmorton, proprietor of Relic, who endured fire danger and evacuations during the 2017 fires, said Soda Canyon Road, the main road to the winery, is now closed. An untimely closing, as they were slated to begin picking grapes this morning. Throckmorton teased that she still remembers all the back ways into the winery, if necessary. In 2017, Throckmorton's husband, winemaker Mike Hirby, hiked across the Napa River behind the barricade and up to the winery. The Relic team navigated perilous access roads to sneak in a generator and complete harvest.
A statewide crisis
Cal Fire officials say that the region had seen almost 11,000 lightning strikes in 72 hours and over 367 new fires started, with 23 considered major incidents. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency Tuesday, as countless other fires of various sizes and severity are burning throughout the state. He also said residents can expect continued rolling blackouts while the heatwave puts stress on electrical utilities. In addition to the raging wildfires in Napa County, part of the LNU complex includes a 1,500-acre fire in the rural hills west of Healdsburg, and the 25-acre Meyers fire on the coast, near Jenner, both in Sonoma County. Healdsburg residents were warned they may have to evacuate during the evening on Aug. 19, but orders were never issued.
Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards said the Meyers fire is the closest to their property, but they are safe for now. They had a scary moment on Monday, when lightning struck an old redwood on the Hellenthal property adjacent to theirs. "We mobilized our crew, and Gard Hellenthal cut a road down to the fire with his bulldozer and brought a water truck down and got it contained," she said, noting that a team from Cal Fire soon arrived to put out any remaining embers.
Hirsch said her bigger concern is how they're going to supply the clients that buy grapes from their vineyards with some surrounding roads inaccessible. "No one has called a pick yet, but harvest is earlier than we anticipated," she said, noting that they originally projected beginning Sept. 7, but the grapes quickly went through veraison even before the heat wave. "Up until Monday, it was shaping up to be an extraordinary vintage," she said. "Then a power outage fried our cooling system, and rain got us worried about botrytis, all while waiting on calls from Cal Fire to update us on the fires."
Farther south, a cluster of fires in Calaveras, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties has burned 85,000 acres so far, with just 5 percent containment. Cal Fire has dubbed it the SCU Lightning Complex. Another blaze, the River fire, has burned 10,000 acres east of Salinas in Monterey County.
Gary Franscioni of his family's Roar Vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands reported that the River fire had jumped a firebreak and crossed over the northern boundary of the appellation but that no wineries or vineyards were currently threatened. The fire was fast-moving, however, he added. "It's pretty scary here," he said, noting that he was moving equipment out of the winery's Sierra Mar vineyard as a precaution. Franscioni said the area hadn't burned in 30 to 40 years and was filled with dried fuels.
Temperatures are expected to remain near triple digits throughout the week. Firefighting resources are strained, and battling multiple fires while housing evacuees in shelters during a pandemic is further exacerbating problems. It is an ominous beginning to California's fire season, which typically lasts until the end of October, when hot, dry winds are most frequent.
—with reporting by Kim Marcus and MaryAnn Worobiec.