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The Wine Country Fires: A Perspective



For my readers who are unfamiliar with the Wine Country of Northern California that’s been ravaged by these recent wildfires, I want to give a little geography lesson, and tell you why the disaster is so epic, even for a state that’s seen some pretty devastating wildfires.

As many of you know, my career was in the wine industry, with a focus on the wines of California. Living in Oakland, I traveled frequently to the wine regions of Napa Valley and Sonoma County, which were the epicenters of the fires. Both are roughly 40 miles north of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area.

This is the heart of California’s multi-billion dollar wine industry. Its wines made California famous; those from Napa Valley remain the most expensive in America. The area is preternaturally beautiful, as wine country tends to be: rolling hills, forested mountains and, in the verdant valleys, jeweled vineyards, with creeks and rivers splashing through riparian corridors.

As near as I can tell (and it will be some time before the facts can be determined), the series of fires appear to have started in a single location: near the northern Napa Valley town of Calistoga. This is a village of great rustic charm, a tourist draw with its charming little wineries, mud baths, spas and restaurants. Apparently, the fire then went in two directions: South, towards the city of Napa, some 30 miles away, and west, to the even larger city of Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County, which is twenty miles away. There was vast destruction all along the way. The worst, as has been widely reported, was in Santa Rosa, where homes by the thousands were torched, but there also was extensive ruin around the city of Napa.

To appreciate the scale of the fire, though, you have to realize that, in spreading westward from Napa to Sonoma, the fire found, not one, but at least two separate routes. One route led directly west from Calistoga, across the Mayacamas Mountains separating Napa and Sonoma counties (the mountains themselves rise to 4,700 feet), and thence directly into the Santa Rosa region. But another route found its way, 30 miles to the south, from the city of Napa across the region known as Carneros, which runs along San Francisco/San Pablo Bay, spanning both counties; and from there, it hit the town of Sonoma, and poked its way northwest into the Sonoma Valley, also known as the Valley of the Moon, where it caused extensive damage in the charming towns of Kenwood and Glen Ellen, on the way to Santa Rosa.

This is a geographic scale that is unimaginable. The entire area contained within it didn’t go up in flames, of course, but for such a huge expanse to have burned is mind-boggling. The total fire acreage was in the hundreds of thousands. Of course, there have been other large-acreage fires in California, but they’re almost always in wilderness and mountainous regions. Napa-Sonoma by contrast is thick in houses, buildings and people.

By contrast, one of the worst fires in California history prior to the Wine Country Fires was right here in Oakland, which by contrast burned only 1,520 acres in the Oakland Hills Firestorm of 1991 (although the total number of homes destroyed then was approximately 3,000, close to the total number of burned homes, about 5,000, in the Wine Country Fires. But the Oakland neighborhood that went up in flames was densely packed with houses).

In wine country and California history lore, the burned areas are famous names: Napa, Calistoga, Oakville, Carneros, Sonoma Town, Glen Ellen, Santa Rosa. It’s impossible to describe the emotional impact to outsiders. To come up with a silly but illustrative example, it’s as if a wildfire had destroyed the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chelsea, Times Square, the Upper West Side, Harlem and the Financial District. Had that happened, of course, the world’s media would have gone into hyperdrive. In the case of the Wine Country Fires, the media of course took notice, but the feeling here in Northern California is widespread that the national media, including television and print, under-reported the extent of the disaster, focusing instead on Trump-related issues.

The same thing happened in 1991 after the Oakland Hills Firestorm. I remember writing letters of complaint for the media’s failure to report in sufficient alarm its hugeness. It had been, after all, the worst fire in American history, as measured by several parameters: the greatest destruction in real estate/insurance value (with the possible exception of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire), and the worst urban-wildland interface fire in U.S. history. Now, here we are again, with the Wine Country Fires establishing new records.

The talk in wine country now is of recovery and rebuilding. I, personally, doubt that there will be much impact on the wine market, although I could be wrong: as I keep saying, we still don’t know how many vineyards were destroyed, how many wine storage facilities, how many winemaking production and distribution centers, or, for that matter, how many winery workers lost their homes or died. Nor do we know what the effects will be of smoke taint. Economically, the cities and towns—Napa and Santa Rosa above all—will take a very long time to rebuild, and one weeps for the tens of thousands of people who lived there who lost all.

Emotionally, for all of us with ties to wine country, the impact will be lifelong. It’s such a shock. It’s so hard to wrap one’s head around the scope of destruction. We who have driven those roads—Highway 29, the Silverado Trail, Route 128 over the Mayacamas, the Oakville Grade Road, Highway 12 in Sonoma, the 101 Freeway through Santa Rosa—and we who have enjoyed the amenities that burned down (I stayed at the Fountaingrove Inn, with Gus, many times)—we still cannot fathom how vast this monster was. The fire was, as Governor Brown stated, the worst in California in his 79 years on Earth, and when all the numbers are in, it will certainly be officially declared the worst in California’s history. The dates Oct. 16-19, 2017, for many of us, will be one of those, like Nov. 22, 1963, that is seared into our memories for the rest of our lives.


  1. Mark Koppen says:

    Steve, it’s way too simplified to say all the fires started in one place; I think the evidence will show at least 3-4 fires starting separately. For example, the Atlas fire in Napa was too far away from the start of the Tubbs fire in Calistoga to be considered the same fire. The Nuns fire in Sonoma Valley that started just north of Glen Ellen would also be a separate fire starting, all Sunday night. Many of them eventually merged, but there were definitely separate beginnings.

  2. Mark Koppen, thank you very much. It’s been very difficult, at least from my position, to know what fire started where. I’ve tried to keep up the reporting, but obviously it was very scattered. I’m looking forward to a final report of origin and route of spread.

  3. I agree with Steve. The fire started in multiple locations. I live at the base of Atlas Peak Road and the first firetrucks headed up the mountain shortly have a power outage, around 9:30pm on Sunday. The CHPs CARR app listed a fire at Hwy 128 & Tubbs but gave an Atlas Peak address. A sure indication to me, that the two fires happened at the same time – too close for a fire to travel 25 miles. When we were evacuated at 1:00am, the fire on the westside, soon to become the Nuns/Partrick fire – was burning. PGE had multiple reports of equipment failure throughout the valley during this time, causing multiple fires. Please don’t write about what you don’t know and haven’t checked your facts. It makes the rest of your report lose credibility.

  4. Sorry, I’m agreeing with Mark, not Steve.

  5. Kellie Anderson says:

    Many fires, In different locations but very close in their time of origin. Epic wind storm likely led to power lines down and arcing. Climax forests, drought, urbanization of forest lands, vineyard development in forested, mountain areas. Poor limits on vineyard and winery development in forest lands, urban encroachment on wood lands. Overdevelopment for dot com billionaire dreams. Not every one should have the right to build a winery.

  6. Kellie, Sam: As I wrote, the facts are not in yet. Possibly there were multiple fires; possibly there was a single source. I know from prior reporting (during the Oakland Hills Firestorm) that these storms can move with incredible veolcity. Anyway, time will tell. The important thing now is to rebuild.

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