In Sonoma, the Wine Industry Reckons with Wildfires and the Pandemic

Sonoma wildfire
The Walbridge Fire as seen from Santa Rosa, Sonoma County / Alamy

More than 7,000 fires have burned 1.4 million acres in California this year, up from 56,000 acres at this point in 2019. In addition to damaging land and homes, the fires threaten the health and livelihood of vineyard workers already affected by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“As always, during this time of the year, we need to be prepared,” said Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s public health supervisor, at a press briefing on August 24. “Unlike other fire seasons, we now have added layer of keeping COVID in mind.”

While fires have threatened major estates, kissed the edges of vineyards and rushed harvests, Sonoma’s harvest continues amid the heat and smoke. The wine industry in Sonoma has been comparatively fortunate, with only three of the region’s American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) affected.

“Luckily, most of the fire has stayed in the rugged hillsides and mountain tops, and the majority of our county’s vineyards are outside of the fire evacuation area,” says Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Wine Growers and executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation.

Evacuations Displace Thousands as Wildfires Threaten Napa and Sonoma Amid Harvest

Kruse’s main concern is the vineyard workers who have been evacuated or are unable to work in these hazardous conditions. “Just as we did following the 2017 and 2019 fires, we have re-opened our Farmworker Resiliency Fund through the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation,” says Kruse, calling the foundation “an invaluable resource for our local farmworkers and wine community.”

The fund offers financial assistance like rent support, money for new or temporary housing, supplemental wages and gift cards to purchase food and essential household items. In previous years, it supported more than 1,500 farmworkers and their families impacted by wildfires.

As of August 24, Kruse received requests to support more than 20 farmworkers.

Increased health and safety procedures are in place at Sonoma’s temporary evacuation sites, which are run in partnership with the American Red Cross. The centers welcome all people, including those who have tested positive for Covid-19. To keep centers from overcrowding, some evacuees are housed in hotels, motels, RV parking and even campsites.

“At Red Cross shelters, we have Covid-19-specific precautions in place to ensure safety remains our top priority,” says Greta Gustafson, media relations specialist at American Red Cross. “This includes conducting a health screening process for everyone coming into the shelter, providing masks, ensuring additional space between cots, and using enhanced cleaning and disinfecting practices.”

The health and safety of first responders are also imperative. Base camps are self-contained, which is why Cal Fire is not accepting food or other donations from the public at this time.

“They’re practicing social distancing, taking their temperatures, wearing face masks,” says Lynnette Round, Cal Fire education and information officer. “All food is pre-prepared and boxed and there’s extra hand washing stations and sanitizer.”

Napa and Sonoma Contend with Wildfires as Harvest Begins

Also at the August 24 briefing, Mase shared the county’s most recent coronavirus figures: 5,120 confirmed cases, 2,013 active cases, 3,035 recovered patients, 75 deaths and no change in the past 24 hours. She reminded the community of the “three pillars” of prevention: face coverings/masks, physical distancing and general hygiene measures. For those who are under evacuation warnings and preparing go-bags, Sonoma County officials have included face coverings and hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol) as essential items.

When asked if resident displacements would increase the number of infections, and the rate at which infections could occur, Mase replied: “Whenever we have people who are in contact with one another that don’t normally live together, there’s definitely a risk. We’ll have to wait to see what the results are of this displacement and evacuations on our Covid numbers.”

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

Published on August 26, 2020
Topics: Latest News