This month, Alan Viader, director of operations and winemaking at Viader Vineyards & Winery in Napa Valley, took a significant step in his career. He didn’t obtain a PhD or earn the coveted title Master of Wine. In a haunting sign of the times, Viader graduated from CalFire’s rigorous six-month fire academy, equipped and certified for a 2021 fire season that has already started.
Now, he says, he knows what to look for and how to protect his Howell Mountain property, which was damaged in the 2020 Glass Fire.
“I’ll never forget it. It was like a hurricane but with embers instead of rain,” Viader recalls.
He isn’t alone. Following the wildfires that have ravaged wine country every year since, wine professionals in Napa and Sonoma are learning how to prevent and fight fires by acquiring not only training, but their own equipment, including fire trucks. They’ve even tried to rent single-engine, water-scooping Fire Boss planes to snuff a blaze as soon as it starts.
The estimated damage to California’s wine business from the 2020 fires alone is expected to reach $3.7 billion, according to market research firm bw166 — and that only accounts for the loss of vines and potential wine sales.
In response, the Sonoma County Winegrowers and Sonoma County Farm Bureau offered a five-hour course on fire safety training to its land stewards in 2020. Last month, the Napa County Board of Supervisors held a day-long wildfire summit with 50 vintners in attendance to address everything from prevention plans and fire hazard abatement to software alert systems for evacuations.
“I’ve never seen our members so focused on a single topic,” says Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners. The big win, he says, was the board’s adoption of a multi-year Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) put forth by the Napa Communities Firewise Foundation, with $6.4 million in funding approved so far.
A primary focus of the CWPP efforts is fuel reduction, something vintners and growers across these valleys are also prioritizing. Most years, Jim Regusci, who owns Napa’s Regusci Winery, brings in sheep to graze through the 170 vineyard acres on his Stags Leap ranch, removing underbrush and other vegetation that can allow fires to burn hotter and faster. This year, he added goats.
“Sheeps graze low, but goats can go vertical,” says Regusci, explaining that the animals can stand on their hind legs, enabling them to reach leaves and other shrubbery. “And we’re doing it on the entire ranch, all 260 acres.”
When the Atlas Peak fire hit Napa in 2017, it was an eye-opener, Regusci says. Since then, he has added 210,000 gallons of water storage and purchased two fire department-style bulldozers. He already owned a fire truck, but has another on the way. He’s ready.
“CalFire does a great job, but their protocol is saving lives, so you have to be self-sufficient,” Regusci says, adding that he did not have fire support for the first 50 hours of the Atlas Peak fire.
After the fire ripped through his property, which he managed to protect with his crew and equipment, the winery crew headed north, saving four more Silverado Trail wineries, including Darioush and James Cole. If he had had that second fire truck, he thinks he could have saved Signorello, which burned to the ground.
“We now have the equipment and know how to run it,” Regusci says.
So does Rene Byck, co-owner of Santa Rosa’s Paradise Ridge Winery, which was reduced to rubble in the 2017 Tubbs Fire. It took two years to rebuild the winery, which reopened at the end of 2019 with a new tile-and-stucco roof instead of the previous wood. Byck also installed a generator and a fire hydrant. His entire staff has received fire emergency training. And instead of bringing in sheep seasonally, he is looking at buying his own livestock and building barns to house them.
“I’m not worried about a fire burning our place again,” he says. “I’m worried about our community continuously getting hit by fires. And I feel bad for my kids. This is the norm for them now.”
In April, along with Napa winemakers Warren Winiarski and Randy Dunn, environmental advocate Mike Hackett and other members of the Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture took matters into their own hands by offering to pay $1.5 million to lease two initial-response air tankers that could each, at a moment’s notice, scoop 800 gallons of water from Lake Berryessa to put out a fire in the county.
CalFire, which contracts with the county to operate the Napa County Fire Department, refused the offer, saying that the Fire Boss planes could slow and complicate their FireHawk helicopter response. That helicopter will be stationed in Napa Valley this season and can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water, but it can be dispatched anywhere in the state.
“Airplanes don’t put out fires but they keep them at bay until people and equipment get there, and from what we’ve seen, that can take time,” says Hackett, president of the GVRA. “I refuse to give up on this.”
Viader, who recently joined the Deer Park volunteer fire department, has been preparing his property more aggressively since the “wake-up call” of 2017. That’s the year he helped evacuate residents as part of the Napa County Sheriff’s volunteer search and rescue team. Last August, when the LNU Lightning Complex fires hit, Viader was on estate and sprang into action, spraying everything with water and, with his crew, creating defensible space by thinning trees and other vegetation on the estate.
He wasn’t as fortunate two months later, when the Glass Fire came raging at three in the morning.
“The fire ripped through our property, and roughly 75 percent of the vineyards were damaged,” he says.
Fire prevention is now a year-round effort, Viader says, and it has changed the way he sees his estate. He uses rocks and gravel as landscaping around structures now, and opens tree canopies to allow access for fire trucks. He has placed easy-to-spot blue reflectors at every water “draft” or hydrant location — there are nearly 500,000 gallons of water stored in tanks throughout the property — and made sure each hookup had a 2.5-inch fire hose connection. That’s the standard connection every fire engine carries.
“I know what to look for now,” he says. “I think everyone should be doing what they can to prepare their properties. It is part of living in nature.”