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A Fire Season Like None Other: Record-Setting Devastation in Napa

On October 6, the August Fire Complex officially became the largest wildfire in California’s modern history, stretching across more than 1 million acres of Mendocino, Shasta-Trinity and Six Rivers National Forests. Sparked by dry lightning on August 17, it continues to burn.

That grisly milestone was almost a week to the day after the Glass Fire broke in Napa and Sonoma counties, first spotted east of St. Helena on September 27.

The Glass Fire has since burned at least 67,484 acres and destroyed 1,555 structures in Napa and Sonoma, including the Restaurant at Meadowood and Newton, Cain and Cornell Vineyards. The latter has suffered damage to the vineyard and the loss of three crew members’ homes.

“It’s more than a piece of land and vines and trees,” says Vanessa Cornell, who founded the winery with her husband Henry, and has nurtured its grounds on the western slopes of Spring Mountain for more than 20 years. “It’s the team we’ve built, it’s caring for the people. It feels bigger than property loss, it’s more like a family than an estate.”

Writer and author Daniel Duane put things in vivid context in a recent Wired article. “California’s 2018 fire season became the most destructive on record—a title it maintained slightly less than 20 months, when it was overtaken not by the 2020 fire season but by a mere four weeks in late summer 2020,” Duane wrote.

“We never feared for our lives, our livelihoods, in our beautiful wine country like this before.”—Kirk Venge, Owner, Venge Vineyards

While Northern California has long had fire seasons, the breadth and severity of uncontrolled blazes have magnified in recent years, terrorizing the region’s residents and exhausting its resources.

When the Atlas and Tubbs fires hit seemingly simultaneously the night of October 8, 2017, Napa Valley had not had a significant fire since September 1964’s Hanley Fire, which burned 53,000 acres and destroyed 84 homes. The Hanley Fire damaged much of the same footprint as Tubbs would decades later. Tubbs devoured 36,807 acres, killed 22 people and destroyed 5,636 structures.

California’s 2018 fire season ravaged 1.6 million acres and was the most destructive year on record. In 2019, Sonoma then endured the Kincade Fire, which burned 77,758 acres and demolished 374 structures.

Recent years have been disastrous, but 2020 seems to know no bounds. It surpassed 2018’s record-setting destruction in just four weeks of blazes this summer. On August 17, dry lightning sparked what would become known as the LNU Lightning Complex, the combination of several fires within Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano counties that burned 363,220 acres.

“These megafires are a product of complex, dynamic and entangled processes,” says Kylie Flanagan, a climate resilience strategist and faculty at the Presidio Graduate School. “Poor fire management practices, colonization, the climate crisis and land-use changes.”

Drought and extreme heat wouldn’t be so problematic if decades of forest mismanagement hadn’t left the state’s forests “overstocked, diseased and full of non-native species, the perfect kindling for incredibly destructive fires,” she adds.

Recent years have been disastrous, but 2020 seems to know no bounds. It surpassed 2018’s record-setting destruction in just four weeks.

For those who have lived in the Napa Valley for decades, these are new times indeed.

“Often Mount Veeder would kick up for a couple of days due to something unfortunate like a lawn mower or worse, a cigarette thrown from a car,” says Kirk Venge, owner of Venge Vineyards. “Singular fires in Napa Valley aren’t new, but the great number and magnitude of 2017 and now these of 2020 are diabolical.”

Venge lives on Tubbs Lane in Calistoga, named for the Tubbs Fire, where he saw the blaze erupt three years ago while on his back porch. The Glass Fire nearly devoured his winery off the Silverado Trail.

“We never feared for our lives, our livelihoods, in our beautiful wine country like this before,” he says.

Not far from Venge lies Amici Cellars, on Old Lawley Toll Road in Calistoga.

“Going back to 2017 the fires were a tremendous surprise,” says Amici owner John Harris. “I’ve been in Napa since 1998 and had never experienced a fire of that scale.”

Back then, at least his grapes were picked. Harris wasn’t so lucky this year.

“The Glass Fire started in our backyard, it’s been the hardest for me, seeing so many places that have burned, both on the east and west sides of the valley,” he says. “For us, facing the decision to not make any 2020 red wine, it’s unlike anything we have dealt with before.”

Small producers like Ralph Hertelendy, whose namesake vineyard is located in the hills above St. Helena, worry the California wine industry cannot sustain these fires.

“If devastating infernos were to occur like this in back-to-back years, it’d put a lot of small brands like myself out of business, it would drive wine prices up even higher than they already are, and many brands would disappear,” he says.

Hertelendy hopes that the wine community can develop proactive reforms versus being reactive year after year.

Wine auctioneer and St. Helena-based vintner Fritz Hatton, co-owner of Arietta, agrees. “I’d always believed St. Helena would be the last place to be touched by fire in the upper Napa Valley, mostly surrounded as it is by vineyards; this last fire has changed my view of that risk,” he says.

“In the near-term we need to adapt to the risks and be proactive as to land-use policies, building codes and management of hillside forest and vegetation. Otherwise, the insurance companies and nature in its evolving form will do it for us.”

For the most up-to-date information on the fires, visit Cal Fire. To support the Napa Valley, donate to the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund.