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California Wine Country Bracing for Fire Season

As Mendocino Complex fires spread to Lake County, vintners are on high alert
The Mendocino Complex fires have spread to more than 273,000 acres.
Photo by: Justin Sullivan
The Mendocino Complex fires have spread to more than 273,000 acres.

Augustus Weed
Posted: August 3, 2018

Updated Aug. 6, 1:00 p.m. EST

The skies are yet again tinged with smoke over Northern California. The Mendocino Complex fires, which started July 27, have spread to more than 273,000 acres, destroying 75 residences and threatening local vineyards and wineries. It will likely soon become the largest fire recorded in California since the state began keeping accurate records in 1932. Just 50 miles away, smoke hangs in the air over Napa and Sonoma counties, an acrid reminder of the deadly wildfires that swept through the region less than a year ago.

Fire season is already in full swing, and California is off to its worst start in nearly a decade, with 3,770 fires recorded this year as of July 29, according to Cal Fire, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. By that date last year the state had seen 3,440 fires.

“The fires have started earlier this year,” Cal Fire deputy chief Scott McLean told Wine Spectator. He attributes the fire risk to California’s six-year drought. While rains brought relief in the winter of 2016–'17, there is still plenty of dried vegetation lying on the ground that can act as fuel. “There are 129 million dead trees in the state due to the [drought] conditions we went through and bark beetles,” he said.

Thousands of firefighters are battling more than a dozen fires from the Oregon border to Southern California that have been spurred by triple-digit temperatures, north winds and low humidity. The fires have destroyed thousands of structures and claimed eight lives, including four firefighters.

The Carr fire has burned more than 163,000 acres in Shasta County according to Cal Fire. It has destroyed more than a thousand homes around the town of Redding in Northern California, making it one of the most destructive in the state’s history. As of Monday morning it was only 45 percent contained.

Several wildfires are also burning near wine country. In Mendocino, the River and Ranch fires, collectively known as the Mendocino Complex, have each spread to Lake County.

The River fire, which ignited in the Mayacamas Mountains, near the rural town of Hopland, has forced several wineries to temporarily close. Fetzer closed its production facility north of the town due to a mandatory evacuation, but was able to reopen July 31 after the danger had passed.

In Lake County, which was devastated by the deadly 76,000-acre Valley fire in 2015, the Mendocino Complex fires have forced thousands to evacuate the town of Lakeport and the surrounding region, home to a handful of wineries including Kendall-Jackson’s Lakeport Vineyard and Steele Wines. But firefighters have been battling the blaze aggressively and it is now approximately 30 percent contained. There are no reports of damage to wineries, and vineyard damage has reportedly been minimal.

The severity of this year’s fires has prompted California Gov. Jerry Brown to issue a state of emergency in Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties.

In late June, the County fire burned northwest of Sacramento and spread into the eastern section of Napa County by Lake Berryessa, far from the vineyards and wineries. The fire burned more than 90,000 acres as firefighters dealt with remote terrain and high winds.

The County fire rattled local vintners, with smoke hovering over Atlas Peak for days, creating hazy conditions. High winds blew ash and smoke as far south as Oakland. Fortunately, it should have no impact on the grapes since veraison, the phase when they begin to ripen, hadn’t started yet. “At this point in the season we don’t expect it to be an issue,” said Will Jarvis of Napa’s Jarvis Estate at the time.

However, vintners in Napa and Sonoma counties have reported that veraison started during the last week of July. And according to the Australian Wine Research Institute, wine grapes are most susceptible to smoke taint between veraison and harvest. “At this time, only a few growing areas [in Lake County] are beginning to experience veraison,” read a joint statement issued Aug. 2 by the Lake County Wine Grape Commission and the Lake County Winery Association. “Growers in the impacted area are proactively monitoring the status of their vines and will be testing their fruit over the coming days.”

“I think every winery in Napa is going to be on high alert for the next few years in terms of fire prevention,” Jarvis said. The winery has implemented several measures to protect its estate, including aggressively trimming vegetation and strategically positioning sprinklers near structures. But Jarvis is not changing its vineyard practices. “The vineyards themselves don’t really need protection,” he said.

Somerston Estate in the eastern hills of Napa Valley is making slight adjustments to how it runs its estate. “We have approximately 450 sheep mowing the property to keep the fuel pressure down,” said general manager and winemaker Craig Becker, referring to undergrowth that might serve as wildfire kindling. The winery is also equipping its vehicles with fire extinguishers and positioning water trucks on the property.

“We can’t be complacent,” warns Cal Fire’s McLean, noting that humans cause the vast majority of fires. “We are in for a long haul.”

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