It’s been smoky here in Oakland the last few days. Smoke from the big wildfire in Napa has been riding the breezes right down here into the Bay Area, giving a sooty, gray pall to the sky and causing eyes to tear. The fire started last Saturday in the Vaca hills east of Napa city and quickly grew to 1,000 acres. It headed east, toward Solano County, and threatened the city of Fairfield (pop. 105,000). By Sunday night you could see flames all along the ridgeline. On Monday, the fire had grown to 3,500 acres, then 4,000 acres this morning. But firefighters now say they have it under control, and the thousands that were forced to evacuate their homes can return. Damage was light, this time: only 1 house and a barn.
Wildfires are a fact of life here in California. My cousin in the Malibu hills has had to run for her life at least twice over the years. I was all packed up and ready to evacuate my own home during the big Oakland Hills Firestorm, in 1991. At the time, it was the worst urban-wildland fire in American history. (If I recall correctly, the Southern California fires of a few years ago eclipsed it.) About 4,000 homes were burnt to their foundations. For a while, Berkeley was in the fire’s path, while on another flank the inferno was headed straight toward downtown Oakland. I wrote a newspaper story on the fire back then and a batallion chief for Oakland Fire Dept. told me if the wind hadn’t changed direction Oakland and Berkeley both would have been gone. As it was, about 27 people died, including a cop and a fire department batallion chief. I had several relatives who lost their homes, including a cousin’s wife who had to escape in her bare feet down the mountain that was choked with poison oak and thorny blackberry bushes.
Yesterday, by coincidence, I was in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, where the 1991 Firestorm Memorial wall is located under a freeway overpass. It consists of thousands of handmade glazed tiles. Each was designed by whoever wanted to make one, and then the tiles were crafted by local volunteer artisans. There’s a tile from Bill Clinton expressing his grief. There are many devoted to lost pets; they say things like “Misty, RIP, 2 years old” with a child’s drawing of a kitty cat. Chokes me up every time.
All this has nothing to do with wine, or does it? Everything has something to do with everything else. Today there are still about 800 wildfires burning in California, most of them ignited over the weekend when we had some really weird weather: very hot, but with lightning storms and even some local downpours. It had people talking about global warming and climate change. If California is heating up, there will be more fires, and most of the better grapegrowing areas just happen to be in the most dangerous fire zones: hilly rural areas where wildfires raged long before grapes were planted, and will again when they’re gone.