Farms, Vineyards Assessing Damage from Wine Country Fires

Farms in California’s iconic wine country are either picking up the pieces or counting their blessings as crews gain an upper hand on wildfires that devastated the area.

Wine grape harvests quickly resumed in areas not affected by evacuations as fewer than 10 of the roughly 1,200 wineries in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties were damaged or destroyed by the fires that began late Oct. 8, the San Francisco-based Wine Institute reported.

But some farms were hit hard, including about a half-dozen of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers’ members whose diversified produce operations were “completely burned,” said Evan Wiig, the organization’s communications and membership director.

“It’s been pretty devastating,” said Wiig, adding that some other growers that didn’t sustain fire damage haven’t been able to access their properties to run irrigation.

“A lot of irrigated land did survive the fires,” he said. “But if you can’t get into your property to irrigate … it’s going to go to waste anyway.”

Among those operations is Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen, Calif., whose 700 acres of produce and flowers nestled against the western slope of the Mayacamas Mountains sustained damage. Wiig has been trying to get the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department to allow farmer David Cooper and others access to the ranch to water the crops that weren’t burned, he said. Cooper lost his home and a barn to the blaze.

Within the wine industry, several vintners — including Signorello Estates and White Rock Vineyards in Napa and Paradise Ridge in Santa Rosa — reported on social media that their wineries had been destroyed.

And five vineyard properties totaling about 200 acres in the Potter Valley area of Mendocino County are known to have been damaged, according to the Wine Institute. But because of evacuations, some winery owners don’t have access to their properties to learn their status, the organization notes.

“Right now we still have damage assessment teams gathering information,” said Scott Ross, a spokesman for the state Office of Emergency Services. “We know there has been some loss (of wineries and vineyards), but we don’t have specifics.”

Napa County Agricultural Commissioner Greg Clark estimates there were 4,300 acres of vineyards in the fire zone, but that isn’t a loss estimate, he said. He’s heard anecdotally of vineyards losing drip tubing or end posts and sustaining some injury to vines from heat exposure, he said.

“Before long we’ll be starting to reach out to the industry to determine damage,” Clark said. “For some, they won’t know (the extent of damage) until bud break … at the end of March or beginning of April.”

Restricted access to properties and power outages have been obstacles, as some wineries were using backup generators and available workers to finish fermentations and other tasks, the Wine Institute reported.

While it’s too soon to know if smoke has tainted grapes remaining on vines, smoke is not an issue for wine that is fermenting of has already been bottled, the institute explained.

The effort to tabulate damage comes as fire crews are tightening containment of blazes in the wine country that destroyed nearly 6,000 homes and killed at least 41 people — including a firefighter — as of Oct. 17, according to The Associated Press.

The National Weather Service was predicting as much as a 60 percent chance of rain in the northern San Francisco Bay area on Oct. 19-20, which could further bolster firefighting efforts.

With the crisis subsiding and people beginning to return to their neighborhoods, the focus is beginning to shift to recovery. The Community Alliance with Family Farmers and other North Bay groups are taking donations for a fund to help victims who’ve “fallen through the cracks,” Wiig said.

Among the recipients could be farmworkers who might not be eligible for federal aid, he said.

“Part of the funds will be going toward affordable housing projects in rural areas that serve the agricultural community,” Wiig said, noting that the loss of homes to fire will likely drive up rental costs.

The groups have already raised about $90,000, he said.

Separately, the Modesto-based E&J Gallo Winery announced it had donated $1 million to fire recovery, dividing the money among the American Red Cross California Wildfires Relief Fund, the Community Foundation of Sonoma and the Napa Valley Community Foundation. In addition, the company will match employee donations two-for-one, according to a news release.

Source: Tim Hearden, Capital Press

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