Evacuations Displace Thousands as Wildfires Threaten Napa and Sonoma Amid Harvest

Napa Sonoma wildfires
The Hennessey Fire burns in the mountains behind Beckstoffer Vineyards in Napa / Photo by Karl Mondon/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Wildfires coincide with the 2020 harvest this week in California, as evacuations displace and disrupt thousands of people’s homes, ranches, vineyards and wineries. Since August 15, the wildfires caused by a rare occurrence of dry lightning coupled with unforgiving drought have burned more than 1.4 million acres from Santa Cruz to Lake County.

The LNU Lightning Complex fire includes several gigantic fires burning across Napa and Sonoma Counties. It’s burned 350,030 acres as of August 25, according to Cal Fire. Five people have died, and 871 structures were destroyed, with another 30,500 threatened.

The Walbridge Fire in western Sonoma County spans 54,068 acres and is only 5% contained, threatening the western edges of Guerneville, Windsor and Healdsburg. It burns outside of the Russian River Valley, Green Valley and Dry Creek Valley appellations. Thus far, 560 structures have been destroyed.

Napa and Sonoma Contend with Wildfires as Harvest Begins

Hartford Family Winery is in the Green Valley, just outside the small town of Forestville near Highway 116. It was evacuated last week, but Jeff Stewart, director of winemaking and general manager, was able to access the winery this weekend to prepare for harvest because he had completed a 40-hour wildland fire training class this summer, and because the winery has hired a professional firefighting company.

“We’ve got the place surrounded with multiple water cannons and fire hoses, so we’re pretty well protected,” he says. “Fire got to [within] 4.5 miles from here and isn’t moving. As long as wind doesn’t get crazy we are good. We are still in an evacuation zone but hoping that will lift tonight because we are picking tomorrow.”

In nearby Sebastopol, Sonoma, Small Vines Wines owner Kathryn Sloan has been trying to look at the bright side.

“People are pretty amazing in times of need,” she says. “Wineries helping each other out and crushing for evacuated wineries, reaching out and helping one another. Adversity can bring out the best of us.”

Winemakers will have to adapt to fire, evacuation and smoke, Sloan says. Some might make sparkling wine instead of still, particularly if they’re harvesting Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, because they can pick the grapes earlier. Others could bottle rosé instead of red wine because there would be less contact with potentially harmed skins. Vineyard owners might crush their own grapes instead of selling them to others.

She also wonders if out-of-work sommeliers will work the harvest since the region’s usual staff of foreign interns are unable to travel due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Two restaurant wine directors, one from Alabama and another from Florida, are working crush at Small Vines this year.

The Hennessey fire in eastern Napa County has crept into several other neighboring counties, including Lake, Yolo and Solano. It spans 293,602 acres and is 26% contained at the time of publication. There, the appellations within the area under threat include Atlas Peak, Pope Valley, Chiles Valley and Howell Mountain.

Meanwhile, the Santa Cruz Mountains have been battling their own fires, which have burned 78,000 acres and 231 structures and threaten thousands more. Carmel Valley, Salinas and the Santa Lucia Highlands are also affected by ongoing fires in those areas and lingering smoke.

Social Distancing and Fire Prevention: California Prepares for Wildfire Season

“We are taking every precaution to ensure the safety of our workers, their families and our property,” says Nicole Bacigalupi, third-generation grower at Bacigalupi Vineyards in the Russian River Valley. “The fire is only a mile or two away from our property, but there are also vineyards in between. As we’ve seen in previous situations, vineyards make great fire breaks.”

Bacigalupi and her neighbors along Westside Road have made their water sources available to Cal Fire to assist in fighting the fire. Evacuations have not been affecting her team’s ability to harvest, she says; they’ve harvested four lots of Pinot Noir and two of Chardonnay so far.

“The yields are incredibly low this year, but flavors and quality are looking great. They are not exhibiting any smoke damage,” she says. “Our family has been through a lot, but we are a resilient bunch and we are confident we will get through this.”

Up-to-date evacuation specifics and wildfire news can be found here.

Published on August 25, 2020
Topics: Latest News