Like everything else in 2020, this year’s wildfires in Northern California were extraordinary. Old-timers say they’ve never seen anything like it. With the exception of 2019, which was still horrific, each year’s wildfires have been progressively record-breaking. This repeated trauma is taking its toll.
This year, the fires are among an entire constellation of stressors, not least of which includes the novel coronavirus pandemic. In the past, fire evacuees stayed together in the large buildings on the state fairgrounds; this year that was impossible. Napa and Sonoma Counties had to scramble to find safe locations for as many as 70,000 evacuees, and it was a slow process.
People are suffering economically as well, with jobs and wages lost due to shut downs and vanished tourism. Schools closed, making it harder if not impossible for parents to work.
“2020 has been such a whopper of a year,” says Mary-Frances Walsh, executive director of NAMI Sonoma County. People call NAMI’s warmline, a phone service where staffers can listen and direct callers to mental health resources, for reasons beyond the fires. “When you talk with people, there’s a lot more going on,” she says. “People are weary and they’ve been through a lot.”
For all that has been written about the need for economic recovery in Northern California wine country, its locals need mental health recovery every bit as urgently. The region’s future depends on its denizens’ resilience.
In August, lightning sparked fires in Napa Valley that grew to ravage 360,000 acres and kill five people. September’s Glass Fire, the most destructive wildfire in recorded U.S. history, devoured 1,235 buildings, including 300 homes, and damaged at least 26 vineyards and wine properties. All in, the year’s 9,485 fires covered 4,058,314 acres and suppression costs are estimated at $1.388 billion.
Within the burned buildings, years’ worth of inventories of wine were lost. Grape vines ususally do not burn; in some cases they can even break fire lines. But the smoke from surrounding fires infuses the grapes, rendering them unusable in a phenomenon known as smoke taint. Even if freshly harvested grapes taste and smell all right, a year in the barrel can yield wine that tastes like an ashtray.
Unlike in previous years, in 2020, the fires arrived before the harvest, not after. And so, many wineries canceled their harvest this year, with up to 80% of Napa Valley’s grapes for Cabernet Sauvignon lost to smoke damage. Cabernet comprises 60% of the wine crop in Napa’s $34 billion wine industry.
Supporting the wine business is an entire ecosystem of farmers, farm workers, vintners, restaurateurs, servers, cooks and hospitality workers—people who live and work in an increasingly precarious environment. The Latinx community makes up over a third of the population in Napa County. Many work in the vineyards or in the hospitality and restaurant industries, both of which have been hit hard by both coronavirus and the wildfires. The hotels and restaurants that were still operating before the fires lost business as smoke filled the region. Record heat shortened many vineyard workdays, slashing paychecks.
Meanwhile, some grape growers received permission to labor in wildfire evacuation zones. The Intercept reported that, in a desperate scramble to collect grapes before they became too contaminated to sell, workers harvested in hazardous conditions, sometimes without proper masks. As yet, we have no official numbers on how many, if any, workers were actually sent to evacuation zones.
As is, many workers in wine country live paycheck to paycheck in a region with astonishingly expensive real estate. The double disasters of the coronavirus and wildfires have created a domino effect, says Patricia Galindo, client services coordinator for La Luz Center, a family services organization focused on the Latinx community in Sonoma Valley. It’s hard enough to make rent on service industry wages under the best circumstances, and if you’re late on your rent or utilities you likely face extra charges. Most families do not have safety nets like insurance, let alone savings. Many are undocumented, and therefore cannot access unemployment and other government safety nets.
“We’re familiar with dealing with wildfires,” says Jenny Ocon, executive director of UpValley Family Centers, a community support organization. “But we have never had to deal with a Covid pandemic on top of it all, and that completely changes the game in terms of how we interface with people and how we help them.”
Ocon serves on a task force that ensures farm workers have both education and personal protective equipment from their employers. They also do outreach to let people know they provide rent assistance.
“I see anxiety, not about what’s going to happen in the future, but what am I going to do next month,” says Galindo. La Luz Center’s goal is to keep people housed, and so they also provide financial assistance for necessities like rent.
Ocon and Galindo say that workers and their families are in survival mode, focused on securing their most basic needs right now. Both organizations either provide or can help connect people with mental health support, but responses to that offer are low so far. There’s no question that they’re under tremendous stress, Ocon says, but they’re not ready to deal with the psychological and emotional effects, yet. “Our experience in general is that people decline initially and then they’ll come back later,” once they’ve met their immediate needs.
Galindo says therapy is not common in Latinx culture; instead, people process trauma by talking out their worries with someone they trust. “That’s where La Luz comes in,” she says. The organization has been around for 35 years and has supported multiple generations.
When people come to them for financial assistance, they’ll also talk about their worries. “We become the therapists,” says Galindo. “Why? Because they want to be able to trust someone who understands their plight.”
Ocon agrees that there can be a stigma attached to mental health services, but believes it’s more complex than that. Counseling is prohibitively expensive, though there are free and low-cost services available. Another challenge is providing therapists who are fluent in Spanish. She feels there are sufficient mental health resources available to the Latinx community at the moment, but the real challenge is going to be providing longer-term mental health care.
NAMI Sonoma County is working on building capacity for Spanish-language services, and recently hired a Spanish speaker for the warmline.
“There’s a real shortage of people with mental health backgrounds who speak Spanish,” Walsh says. “There’s a huge need, but that is absolutely something we’re working to remedy.”
Currently, NAMI is training staffers to eventually offer its eight-week course Family-to-Family, which teaches people about different kinds of mental illness, bilingually for the first time.
For residents with relatively more financial security, the fires pose a different kind of emotional stress. Woody Hambrecht and Helena Price Hambrecht live in a century-old house that’s been in the family since the 1970s. Woody farms the vineyard on the property, which typically yields 240 tons of grapes. They lost the entire harvest this year due to smoke damage.
Fortunately, the Hambrechts have an aperitif business, Haus, which was unaffected, and their crop insurance will cover about half of the farm’s annual revenue. With some cuts, including Woody’s 2021 salary, it’s just enough for them to hold onto the property.
Still, Woody says, “it’s terrible. There’s no way around that.” With premiums surging, an estimated 25% of California grape growers didn’t have crop insurance in 2018, which puts those who rely entirely on the revenue of their vineyards in a precarious position. It’s increasingly expensive to rebuild in Sonoma County.
A lot of the stress farmers are feeling comes from a sense of powerlessness as a haunting new question emerges: Are we going to lose our crop every year now?
Rolling with the caprices of Mother Nature is part of farmer culture. But the Hambrechts note that the younger generations of farmers are much more willing to seek mental health support than older generations, and that’s taking its toll on the latter.
“It’s probably a double-edged sword, where these farmers are so resilient, and they’re able to run these large plots of land with very little help,” says Woody. But that spirit of self-reliance has its downside. “I imagine that there’s a lot of people just dealing with the anxiety on their own, and toughing it out.”
Along with the unpredictability, the fires pose an existential threat. “It’s really really hard to explain,” says Woody, “but when you work a piece of land for your whole life, and in many cases multiple generations, for that just to one day just be destroyed? It’s more than the loss of property; I think it’s also a loss of purpose.” And that loss of purpose can have a greater emotional impact than the material losses.
But there is hope for the region’s mental and emotional resilience. Over the past three years, Napa and Sonoma counties have learned how to sound alarms and notify residents of evacuations, with clearer instructions for preparation. The fires may still be unpredictable, but there is a little more security around the response.
Meanwhile, since the fires of 2017, therapists have received training in what’s called skills in psychological recovery (SPR). Healthcare Foundation Northern Sonoma formed the Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative, organizing an integrated post-disaster mental health response. They collaborated with patient monitoring platform Overlap to create Sonoma Rises in 2018, a bilingual mental health assessment and resource app (though sadly funding for this has not been renewed). NAMI Sonoma County also organized services for people impacted by the fires. Free yoga classes, group and individual counseling sessions were offered. Grassroots recovery groups like Coffey Strong formed.
As of this writing, Sonoma County appears to have passed Measure O, raising sales tax by a quarter cent in order to raise $25 million over 10 years to help fund mental health and homelessness services.
“I think people just recognize that mental health is at the top of the list right now in this county,” says Walsh.
Meanwhile, the Hambrechts and their neighbors are working to change the narrative of feeling helpless to the whims of wildfires by experimenting with what’s called controlled burning. This is a very old practice of forest management Indigenous people in the Americas and Australia have done for centuries.
Woody will be gathering with neighbors and state and local firefighters to burn a wooded 30-acre area. “This is a way for us to sort of take control,” says Woody. It reduces the risk of uncontrollable wildfires in future years. “But what’s more important, what it’s really about, is empowering us to feel like we can actually do something. Because this sense of inevitability is really disruptive.”
What the controlled burning also does is underline how much the community has come together over a shared purpose. During the emergency, Woody says, his neighbor Fred Peterson, an ex-fire-chief and longtime farmer for his own family’s winery, Peterson Family Winery, gathered his buddies and drove a big water tanker with gear around the area, watering everyone’s houses to help protect them from the fire.
On the long dirt road the Hambrechts live on, everyone knows each other. But they’ve come together in ways they hadn’t before. “And that’s really special,” says Woody. “I think there’s a sense of community that really is coming back, and that that’s probably the kind of mental health solution that comes most naturally to people, and actually makes a real difference.”