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Vineyards may have kept wine country fire from getting worse

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 10/12/2017 By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times
Grape vines damaged by heat from wildfires are seen at a vineyard in Santa Rosa, California, on October 11, 2017. The toll from Northern California's ranging wildfires continued to grow as officials said the fires destroyed up to 2,000 structures and killed at least 17 people © ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images) Grape vines damaged by heat from wildfires are seen at a vineyard in Santa Rosa, California, on October 11, 2017. The toll from Northern California's ranging wildfires continued to grow as officials said the fires destroyed up to 2,000 structures and killed at least 17 people

LOS ANGELES - Christian Palmaz used hoes, shovels and rakes to keep flames from his family's 19th-century vineyard estate home on the flanks of Mount St. George in eastern Napa County.

But he didn't have to worry about his vines. They're green, very much alive, and a stark contrast to more than 500 acres of oak, manzanita and grassland charred by the Atlas fire as it tore across Palmaz's property.

As the Napa and Sonoma valleys struggle through days of a raging firestorm that has already claimed at least 28 lives, many vineyards in the nearly 100,000-acre burn areas appear to be emerging largely unscathed.

The vineyards stand in stark contrast to tens of thousands of acres of oak wildlands, as well as entire residential neighborhoods, that have been scorched.

For all the frightening images of flames consuming winery buildings and looming over the background of the region's postcard-perfect vineyards, the wine country blazes so far appear to be mainly an urban catastrophe.

Thirteen people were killed in and around the city of Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, where the Tubbs fire consumed more than 1,500 suburban tract homes as well as hotels, restaurants and other facilities that have grown around the region's wine industry, which adds $57 billion to the state's economy.

The toll from those losses is expected to be enormous. But so far, only a handful of winery buildings have been destroyed, while a scattering of others have suffered partial damage, according to early assessments.

"Vineyards save lives," said Jennifer Putnam, executive director of Napa Valley Grapegrowers, who has a college degree in forestry. "They saved property and lives in Napa County. It's as clear as it can be."

Even at Napa's Signorello Estate, where the tasting room burned to the ground Sunday night, 40 acres of decades-old vines survived, owner Ray Signorello Jr. said Thursday.

"The vines appear to be almost 100 percent intact," he said. "The fire just came up to the edge of the vineyard and stopped."

This year's crop had been harvested, and was unscathed, Signorello added. Barreled wine, stored in a separate steel-sided building, also was undamaged, he said.

Fire officials have said they considered the relatively open space of vineyards, which hold more moisture than oak forests, to be a natural firebreak that allowed their forces to concentrate on protecting populated areas and structures.

About 10 percent of Napa County is given over to growing grapes. A similar share of Sonoma County is planted in grapes, much of it in the open flatlands along the Russian River.

The wine industry had the odds in its favor before the wind-driven fires erupted - as much as 85 percent of the grapes had already been picked but the vines had not yet gone dormant. There also was very little cover crop between rows, which is planted to restore nutrients and prevent soil runoff.

When dried out, that growth can provide "ladder" fuel that can bring flames up to the vines.

Palmaz fought that kind of grass and brush around buildings, and lost a guesthouse. But the three-story Henry Hagen estate, built in 1876, was spared, as well as the approximately 10 percent of his 640 acres that are planted in vineyards.

"I've been out there with a shovel and a hoe and rakes for the last 38 hours - with my sister and my wife - and I can tell you these vineyards are absolutely a godsend," Palmaz said.

"Ninety percent of the property is wildland. It all burned ... except the vineyard."

The winery, a 110,000-square-foot bunker dug into Mount St. George, suffered superficial damage as the fire swept directly over it, Palmaz said.

"When you came up to it the next morning, you had to look pretty closely for evidence of fire," Palmaz said. "Landscape stuff was on fire. The little landscape lights were melted in the parking lot. Little stuff like that. But the facility is all rocks."

Some vines were charred but still alive, Palmaz said.

It may be some time before damaged vines can be assessed, and many burn areas remain off limits, officials in both counties cautioned.

"They can be heat-damaged," Putnam said. "That's where we're really going to have to wait and see. They won't show the effects instantly. It's not like a piece of kindling that goes up. It's more like a house plant that you don't water."

Still, Putnam has been shocked at how much vineyard acreage was spared the worst of the flames. She has observed fire "stopping abruptly as if you drew a line in the grass."

In neighboring Sonoma County, officials were struggling to assess damage. But rumors of the demise of wineries such as Chateau St. Jean proved false, while the flames that destroyed Paradise Ridge somehow spared the vines. Farther south, a historic home at Gundlach Bundschu vineyard burned to the ground; the state of the vines was not known.

Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, said she also saw remarkable contrasts between green vines and charred suburban neighborhoods near Santa Rosa.

"The ends of the vine rows, you could see the cover crop was burned, but then everything else was just fine," said Kruse, who lost her home in the Fountaingrove neighborhood.

At times, however, the fires proved powerful enough to turn comparatively lush vineyards into fuel.

"We've seen the whole spectrum," said Tony Linegar, Sonoma County's agricultural commissioner. "We've seen where (vineyards) probably helped and acted like a firebreak, and then where the fire's just so hot it just mowed right through it."

Even as flames advanced toward Calistoga and Geyserville midweek, vineyards all over both valleys were being picked of the remaining grapes, largely the highly valuable cabernet varieties, some of which can fetch prices of $50,000 a ton.

It is unlikely those grapes will suffer "smoke taint," because most had already reached maturity and were exposed to smoke for a short time, industry officials said.

Already struggling with endemic labor shortages, vineyard owners now have to contend with road closures and evacuations that were making it difficult to get workers into the fields, which can be picked as late as November, Linegar said.

Still, workers improvised ways to get to vineyards, while trucks laden with grapes found side roads to wineries, the majority of which remained in operation.

"I can tell you I saw quite a few grape trucks this morning, hauling gondolas full of fruit," Linegar said. "So growers are actively trying to get the fruit off. I know that."

The number of acres wildfires burn annually © Good/TNS/TNS The number of acres wildfires burn annually

Even Palmaz harvested an acre on Monday night, 24 hours after flames tore across his property.

"For us," Palmaz said, "it was a little symbolic."

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