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Fires have ripped through the Napa Valley over the last six years. Underneath all the rubble that was left from the wake of those fires has been a superior fire response and prevention system, greater inter-neighborhood cooperation, and a deeper understanding of community. Fire season in the Napa Valley coincides with harvest.

In recent years, the 2017 fire of Atlas Peak/Tubbs and the Glass Fire of 2020 have been extra curve balls thrown at winemakers. The past years’ devastating fires have prepared the California Fire Department to become one of the best fire protection units in the world. 

Winemakers deal with a lot of moving pieces leading up to harvest. Tasting fruit nearly every day at each vineyard site, prepping the winery for any incoming fruit, monitoring crop yields, training interns, sanitizing materials for harvest, acquiring oak barrels (which usually means moving old barrels), monitoring vine health in the vineyard, consistently evaluating weather by the hour, coordinating pick crews, fixing old equipment from last year, and a multitude of other tasks.

Because harvest is the time of year when the Napa Valley gets a large chunk of its customers, quite often there is a lot of visiting and promotional work needed to be done for and by the winery as well. 

Fire Season for a winemaker and vineyard poses numerous threats: 

  1. Fire. It doesn’t matter what your industry is, if you’re dealing directly with fire, your business is affected. For a winemaker, it could mean lost crops, lost infrastructure, lost inventory, or all three. Even if you manage to save your property, your crop and your sales are going to be directly affected in some capacity. 
  2. Smoke taint. If smoke lingers in the area long enough, it can affect and taint the flavor of the grapes. No one has yet discovered a conclusive way to deplete smoke taint in a wine. While there are some practices that help diminish the effects, they are also quite hard on the wine and truthfully, it is just never the same. 
  3. Access. Tending to the grapes both in the vineyard and those already picked can become extremely challenging during evacuation orders. Fermenting wine has to be cared for daily. If not, the wine will more than likely spoil and/or be tainted. 
  4. Greatly diminished sales. Lack of tourism because of the fires has hurt the Napa Valley in previous years. Napa is a tourism-run town. Without the economy of tourism, we cannot continue to make the premium wine we do in the Napa Valley. 

On top of these wine-related issues, winemakers are part of the local community like everyone else. They are worrying about neighbors, friends, and family. They have to labor through the conditions breathing smoke and carcinogens to try to ensure their vintage isn’t lost. The cost of operating generators 24//7 when you lose power is extremely high and you have no guarantees as to whether you’ll have a salvageable crop to cover those costs. Communication with friends, family, and customers can be challenging with down phone lines and power outages that accompany a big fire. 

The most significant change in the past decade is insurance-related. Since the Glass Fire of 2020, major insurers have been pulling out of California. Those that are willing to insure, are charging rates over double what they were before, with less coverage. Meaning, you will pay two to three times what you paid in previous years, and you might only get 50% of your home and winery covered. Or only the structure and none of the contents. So not only is your current vintage at risk from fire and smoke, but your last vintage that is still in the barrel is not insurable. 

Not only are owners’ and winemakers’ livelihoods at risk, but their homes are as well. Stakes are high and most of it is out of their control. Needless to say, elevated stress levels are now just a part of the job. 


Wineries have gotten ahead of some of these issues with local support.

The Napa County Sheriff’s Department has used the Nixle communication system since 2009. The system is a direct alert to all locals who sign up for updates from police, fire, and emergency activity in the area. Over the years it has gotten more timely, precise, and direct.  

What dictates the direction of fire? The answer is topography, mother nature, and the field load. What can humans control from the three? Mostly field load. Field load is the load of potential fuel (dense trees, underbrush, kindling) surrounding properties and forests within Napa. Much of it is out of our control, but efforts to maintain a safe perimeter around your property and dwellings can be a very effective fire prevention technique. Of course, there are no guarantees. If a spark lands in the wrong place, no amount of safe perimeter is going to help. 

Fire season is usually August through October, which are some of the driest and hottest months of the year. During the wet season—November through April—and fire preseason—May through July typically, but not always—firefighters, local trusts, volunteers, and local government workers do a lot of fire prevention prep work. Their goal is to decrease the intensity of a fire if it arrives to give firefighters a fighting chance. 

There are four main methods used by local farmers, vintners, government workers, and fire prevention organizations like the Napa Land Trust:

  1. Controlled burns. This is mostly done in the wet season when fire risk is at its lowest.
  2. Rotational Grazing. Using livestock like goats and sheep to eat underbrush in hard-to-reach areas can be extremely effective. Many vineyards are using this to keep their undergrowth manageable for fire season. Generally speaking, vineyards are great fire breaks if managed well.
  3. Forest Thinning and Shaded Fuel Breaks. Shaded Fuel Breaks are usually semi-circle sections of the forest that are groomed and thinned. Thinning connected tree limbs reduces competition of current trees and creates a diversity of tree species, this decreases the chance that the oldest or largest trees will die in the event of a wildfire. 
  4. Replanting using firewise plants and trees. These are plants and trees that are more resilient to fire, and even more importantly do not expel excessive underbrush that fuels fire. 


What do vineyards and wineries do for fire prevention?

Local American Viticultural Areas have taken it upon themselves to get fire organized with predetermined evacuation routes, water access points, and personal property management. 

Here at Paloma, we make use of creating defensible space. This means lowering the risk of potential fire fuel. We remove any dry wood or underbrush and extra vegetation which often acts as kindling. Doing so decreases the intensity of a fire if it does pass through. The less intense the fire the easier it is for firefighters to put the fire out. 

Paloma’s location at the top of Spring Mountain is an ideal lookout for firefighters, as it showcases the northern half of the Vaca Mountain Range, the entire bench above Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, and a good section of the valley floor. Paloma also has its own fire truck purchased jointly with a handful of neighbors to help slow down a fire before it starts. 

With our recent fire history in the Napa Valley, we are more aware. We all share many of the same customers who are visiting and deal with many of the same challenges. Now, more than ever, working together means all boats rise with the tide. 

The local government branches have also been making improved efforts to support local businesses. Check out these resources for more information:

Napa Fire Wise: Defensible Space Guide

Napa Land Trust: Fire Prevention and Recovery 

Napa County: Defensible Space and Fire Wise Plants