Meet the California Winemakers Turned Firefighters
It looked like we’re in a hurricane, but instead of water, it was fire and embers. At one point, the fire was all around us.”
High-pitched whistles sounded in the ears of Alan Viader, as propane tanks exploded. There was a burning house to the right, but he had to go left — because there was only one way in and one way out. And at any time, the fire could jump the road and block his exit.
“We stayed out all night, literally around-the-clock. What’s even crazier — I still had fruit waiting at the winery,” he recalls.
These are Viader’s memories of fighting the October 2017 Atlas Fire. The winemaker of his family’s Viader Vineyards & Winery in Deer Park, Napa Valley, Viader is also a five-year veteran of the Napa Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team and a 2021 graduate of the county’s volunteer firefighter academy.
“At night I’d run around helping with evacuations, then I’d race back to the winery at 9 or 10 a.m., slam a cup of coffee, and do all my pump overs and punch downs. We had no power, so everything was by hand,” he says. “Then I’d go back out and volunteer again.”
On August 17, 2020, lightning hit northern California nearly 11,000 times in a 72-hour period. More than 370 fires began burning across the state, eventually merging into the LNU Complex fire, the fourth-largest fire in Californian history. When it crawled up toward his mountain top property, Viader’s search and rescue team wasn’t called. Instead, Viader texted maps, GPS coordinates, and other vital information to the fire crew attempting to save the estate where he grew up.
The sheriff’s department, he explains, isn’t in charge of fighting fires. “They’re in charge of safety, evacuations, and they [the fire department] only use search and rescue when they need us,” he says. “I felt like I should have been there.”
So in 2021, Viader signed up for the volunteer fire academy.