Evacuations expanded as California wine country fire spreads quickly

Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam
·4-min read
Glass Fire in Saint Helena

Evacuations expanded as California wine country fire spreads quickly

Glass Fire in Saint Helena

By Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (Reuters) - A wind-driven wildfire raged for a second day through Northern California wine country on Monday, burning homes, forcing thousands of residents to flee and threatening some of the world-renowned vineyards of Napa and Sonoma counties.

As of Monday, a blaze dubbed the Glass Fire had spread across 11,000 acres (4,450 hectares) of rolling grassy hillsides and oak woodlands, fanned by high winds and fueled largely by thick, dry scrub left unburned by previous wildfires.

The fire erupted before dawn on Sunday near Calistoga, in the heart of the Napa Valley wine-growing region about 75 miles (120 km) north of San Francisco, and had spread by afternoon across 2,000 acres (810 hectares). By Monday, the blaze and two other fires had merged into a larger conflagration straddling western Napa County and an adjacent swath of Sonoma County, with containment listed at zero.

In one notable property loss, the mansion-like Chateau Boswell winery in St. Helena, a familiar landmark along the Silverado Trail road running the length of the Napa Valley, went up in flames on Sunday night.

An estimated 60,000 residents have been placed under evacuation orders or advisories in Sonoma and Napa counties combined.

No injuries have been reported, and the fire's cause was under investigation. Santa Rosa Fire Chief Anthony Gossner said the blaze was burning mostly through overgrown scrub in areas that had seen little or no wildfire activity in a century.

Not everyone heeded evacuation orders.

As homes emptied out around him, Santa Rosa resident Jas Sihota perched himself on his front porch with a garden hose, darting out every 15 minutes or so to douse nearby spot fires seeded by wind-blown embers under a hazy red sun.

Sihota, a radiology technician at a nearby hospital, said he had not slept in some 24 hours.

"I wouldn't have a house if I didn't stay," said Sihota. At least 10 homes elsewhere on the street beyond the reach of his hose were destroyed.

In 2017, roughly 5% of Santa Rosa's homes were lost when downed power lines sparked a devastating firestorm in October that swept the region, killing 19 people.

The Glass Fire marked the latest flashpoint in a historically destructive wildfire season throughout the Western United States.

In California alone, wildfires have scorched 3.7 million acres (1.5 million hectares) since January - far exceeding any single year in state history. They have been stoked by intense, prolonged bouts of heat, high winds and other weather extremes that scientists attribute to climate change. Since mid-August, fires in the state have killed 26 people and destroyed over 7,000 structures.

HARVEST-SEASON FLAMES

The Glass struck about midway through the region's traditional grape-harvesting season, already disrupted by a spate of large fires earlier this summer.

Several Napa Valley growers said recently they would forgo a 2020 vintage altogether due to smoke contamination of ripening grapes waiting to be picked.

The 475 vintners in Napa Valley alone account for just 4% of the state's grape harvest but half the retail value of all California wines sold. Sonoma County, too, has become a premiere viticulture region with some 450 wineries and a million acres of vineyards.

The full impact on the region's wine business remains to be seen and will differ for each grower, depending on how far along they are in production, said Teresa Wall, spokeswoman for the Napa Valley Vintners trade group.

"It's completely variable," she said. "There are some who were close to wrapping up (harvests), and some who were still planning to leave their grapes hanging out there for a while."

Still, the fires caused major upheavals for some of the area's most vulnerable residents in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 151-bed Adventist Health St. Helena hospital was forced to evacuate patients on Sunday, the second time in a month following a lightning-sparked wildfire in August.

On Monday, residents at Oakmont Gardens, a Santa Rosa retirement community, leaned on walkers and waited to board a bus taking them to safety, their face masks doubling as protection against smoke and COVID-19.

About 37,000 homes and business have sustained power disruptions across the region, some from precautionary shutoffs of transmission lines to reduce wildfire risks in the midst of extremely windy, hot, dry weather, Pacific Gas and Electric Co reported.

CalFire said more than 1,000 firefighters were battling the Glass Fire, with at least 18,000 on the front lines of more than two dozen major blazes across the state.

Red-flag warnings for extreme wildfire risks remained posted for much of Northern California, forecasting low humidity and gale-force wind gusts.

(Reporting by Adrees Latif and Stephen Lam in Santa Rosa, California; Writing and additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Peter Cooney)