Napa County vintners form plans to protect vineyards against wildfires

Cal Fire advised homeowners and businesses not to stay behind to defend their properties when wildfire evacuations are ordered. Nonetheless, Napa Valley's vintners are formulating plans to give their fire beleaguered wineries a better chance of survival. Vintners are getting together, once again to fight off adversity.

The Glass Fire damaged or destroyed 28 wineries in Napa County last September to October. This prompted a growing number of vintners to take self-action. 

Rick Jones, owner of the Jones Family Vineyard and the head of the Napa Valley Vintner committee said, "Last fire season really brought home the challenge that we face and motivated all of us to try to get ahead of this, rather than just responding to it. That means to protect your property; adding water supplies, adding sprinkler systems, clearing vegetation."

Besides using earth-moving equipment to create fire breaks or dig more ponds for water supplies, some are buying new or used fire fighting equipment, especially water pumping tankers, to take the fight to the encroaching fire.

Some are also training staff to fight fires, not just to save the wineries, but their own livelihoods. "But, even they are not trying to replace Cal Fire or our volunteer firefighters. We are not advocating wholesale firefighting by private entities" said Jones.

Even though vineyards are great fire breaks, the vintner's multi-pronged effort includes creating larger defensible spaces, better forest management fuel reductions off-premises, adding staff and equipment to official fire protection agencies, and vigorous post-fire replanting to enhance water retention and reduce landslides. 

Wineries have been plagued by wildfire insurance cancellations and less coverage. "Even if they can get a restricted level of coverage, they're paying up to four or five times as much as they used to," said Jones.

The situation is so bad, the governor just signed a bill allowing wineries to get onto the state's Fair Plan, California's insurer of last resort. 

"That, in and of itself, is a good thing. However, the amount of coverage that the Fair Plan is also to expend is very small," said Michelle Novi, government relations expert at Napa Valley Vintners.

Although 95% of Napa vineyards are small and family-owned, they are important to the California economy. "(We) make up only 4% of the acreage here in the state, but we contribute about 33% of the overall value economically. So,  we're a small place with a big impact," said Novi.

Vintners also worry about the other major issue, constant fires scaring tourists away.