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Vineyards may have kept wine country fire from getting worse

Christian Palmaz used hoes, shovels and rakes to keep flames from his family’s 19th-century vineyard estate home on the flanks of Mt. St. George in eastern Napa County.

But he didn’t have to worry about his vines. They’re green, very much alive, and a stark contrast to more than 500 acres of oak, manzanita and grassland charred by the Atlas fire as it tore across Palmaz’s property.

As the Napa and Sonoma valleys struggle through days of a raging firestorm that has already claimed at least 29 lives, many vineyards in the nearly 100,000-acre burn areas appear to be emerging largely unscathed.

The lush rows of green vines stand in stark contrast to tens of thousands of acres of oak wildlands, as well as entire residential neighborhoods, that have been scorched.

For all the frightening images of flames consuming wineries and tasting rooms and looming over the background of the region’s postcard-perfect vineyards, the wine country blazes so far appear to be mainly an urban catastrophe.

Fourteen people were killed in Sonoma County, mostly around the city of Santa Rosa, where the Tubbs fire consumed more than 2,800 suburban tract homes as well as hotels, restaurants and other facilities that have grown around the region’s wine industry, which adds $57 billion to the state’s economy.

The toll from those losses is expected to be enormous. But so far, only a handful of winery buildings have been destroyed, while a scattering of others have suffered partial damage, according to early assessments.

“Vineyards save lives,” said Jennifer Putnam, executive director of Napa Valley Grapegrowers, who has a college degree in forestry. “They saved property and lives in Napa County. It’s as clear as it can be.”

Even at Napa’s Signorello Estate, where a building housing the tasting room burned to the ground Sunday night, 40 acres of decades-old vines survived, owner Ray Signorello Jr. said Thursday.

“The vines appear to be almost 100% intact,” he said. “The fire just came up to the edge of the vineyard and stopped.”

This year’s crop had been harvested, and was unscathed, Signorello added. Barreled wine, stored in a separate steel-sided building, also was undamaged, he said.

Fire officials have said they considered the relatively open space of vineyards, which hold more moisture than oak forests, to be a natural firebreak that allowed their forces to concentrate on protecting populated areas and structures.

Fire crews “use the vineyards to their advantage to ensure that they can stop the spread of the fire or stop the front of the fire from coming through,” said Cal Fire spokesman Jonathan Cox, battalion chief for Northern California.

“I have seen some damage to some of the crops, where the heat was just so intense it burned the actual vine, but that’s not widespread,” Cox said.

The wine industry had the odds in its favor before the wind-driven fires erupted. Only about 10% of Napa County is given over to growing grapes. A similar share of Sonoma County is planted in grapes, much of it in the open flatlands along the Russian River.

As much as 85% of the grapes had already been picked but the vines had not yet gone dormant. There also was very little cover crop between rows, which is planted to restore nutrients and prevent soil runoff.

When dried out, that growth can provide “ladder” fuel that can bring flames up to the vines.

Palmaz fought that kind of grass and brush around buildings, and lost a guesthouse. But the three-story Henry Hagen estate, built in 1876, was spared, as well as the approximately 10% of his 640 acres that are planted in vineyards.

“I’ve been out there with a shovel and a hoe and rakes for the last 38 hours — with my sister and my wife — and I can tell you these vineyards are absolutely a godsend,” Palmaz said.

“Ninety percent of the property is wildland. It all burned … except the vineyard.”

The winery, a 110,000-square-foot bunker dug into Mt. St. George, suffered superficial damage as the fire swept directly over it, Palmaz said.

“When you came up to it the next morning, you had to look pretty closely for evidence of fire,” Palmaz said. “Landscape stuff was on fire. The little landscape lights were melted in the parking lot. Little stuff like that. But the facility is all rocks.”

Some vines were charred but still alive, Palmaz said.

It may be some time before damaged vines can be assessed, and many burn areas remain off limits, officials in both counties cautioned.

“They can be heat-damaged,” Putnam said. “That’s where we’re really going to have to wait and see. They won’t show the effects instantly. It’s not like a piece of kindling that goes up. It’s more like a house plant that you don’t water.”

Still, Putnam has been shocked at how much vineyard acreage was spared the worst of the flames. She has observed fire “stopping abruptly as if you drew a line in the grass.”

In neighboring Sonoma County, officials were struggling to assess damage. But rumors of the demise of wineries such as Chateau St. Jean proved false, while the flames that destroyed Paradise Ridge somehow spared the vines. Farther south, a historic home at Gundlach Bundschu vineyard burned to the ground; the state of the vines was not known.

Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, said she also saw remarkable contrasts between green vines and charred suburban neighborhoods near Santa Rosa.

“The ends of the vine rows, you could see the cover crop was burned, but then everything else was just fine,” said Kruse, who lost her home in the Fountaingrove neighborhood.

At times, however, the fires proved powerful enough to turn comparatively lush vineyards into fuel.

“We’ve seen the whole spectrum,” said Tony Linegar, Sonoma County’s agricultural commissioner. “We’ve seen where [vineyards] probably helped and acted like a firebreak, and then where the fire’s just so hot it just mowed right through it.”

Linegar’s counterpart in Napa, Greg Clark, said vine damage may not be evident until spring, but that so far it looks as though flames that went through vineyards did so quickly, without igniting vines.

“There may be some areas that are smaller blocks of vineyards, tucked up in the hills, that were surrounded by fuel that maybe didn’t fare so well,” Clark said. “But we won’t know that until we can get up there.”

Even as flames advanced toward Calistoga and Geyserville midweek, vineyards all over both valleys were being picked of the remaining grapes, largely the highly valuable cabernet varieties, some of which can fetch prices of $50,000 a ton.

California 29 was open through the heart of Napa Valley, allowing some of the region’s biggest producers to continue shipping this year’s release, Clark said. Most warehouses are in the southern part of the county and near the airport, away from the burn areas, he added.

Soil damage and erosion is unlikely to pose a problem in vineyards, but growers will have to take measures to control runoff from neighboring burn areas during upcoming winter rains, Clark said.

It is unlikely grapes remaining on vines will suffer “smoke taint,” because most had already reached maturity and were exposed to smoke for a short time, industry officials said.

Already struggling with endemic labor shortages, vineyard owners now have to contend with road closures and evacuations that were making it difficult to get workers into the fields, which can be picked as late as November, Linegar said.

Still, workers improvised ways to get to vineyards, while trucks laden with grapes found side roads to wineries, the majority of which remained in operation.

“I can tell you I saw quite a few grape trucks this morning, hauling gondolas full of fruit,” Linegar said. “So growers are actively trying to get the fruit off. I know that.”

Even Palmaz harvested an acre Monday night, 24 hours after flames tore across his property.

“For us,” Palmaz said, “it was a little symbolic.”

geoffrey.mohan@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATgeoffmohan


UPDATES:

1:10 p.m.: This article was updated with information from Cal Fire and from the Napa County agricultural commissioner.

11 a.m.: This article was updated to include details about the vineyards at Napa’s Signorello Estate and a more recent tally of lives lost.

This article was originally published at 6 a.m.

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