Even two months later, it's difficult to forget the apocalyptic looking images of the devastating northern California wildfires. While the full impact of the fires may not be known for months or years to come, according to Cal Fire, 43 lives have been lost, over 245,000 acres burned, and an estimated 3,200 cars and 8,900 structures were destroyed. In total, insurance claims for the fire exceed $3.3 billion dollars, making it the costliest wildfire season for the state on record. And yet, fire season still isn't over. As of the writing of this article a devastating fire in Southern California is "out of control", and has forced 27,000 people to evacuate. It's already burned 45,000 acres - an area about twice the size of Manhattan.
What Caused the Northern California Wildfires?
It's still unknown what exactly sparked the wildfires in northern California, but many are pointing fingers at the Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E), the big power utility provider in the region. In early November, a San Francisco Attorney filed wrongful death lawsuits on behalf of the families of a Mendocino couple who died in a fire in Redwood Valley in October. The lawsuit is one of many like it and claims that PG&E failed to maintain and prevent contact between their electrical equipment and surrounding trees and shrubs.
But even if PG&E is found to be liable for starting the fires, there were several other environmental factors that came together to create a perfect storm of conditions and help make the wildfires so destructive. The first was the deluge of rain last winter in northern California, which prompted the growth of an enormous amount of fuel for the fires - namely grass and brush. These grew like they haven't been able to in years after the massive California droughts. The rainfall was followed by five months of record-breaking hot, dry weather, helping to dry out all that new grass. Finally, annual hot, dry winds blew into the region in October, helping to lower humidity and spread the fires quickly.
How Have the Wildfires Impacted California Vineyards?
By the time the fires started, most of the region's vintners had already harvested their grapes. Sonoma County Winegrowers and the Napa Valley Vintners told Wine Spectator that an estimated 90 percent of the region's wine grapes had been picked by early October. Experts are also reporting that there is a good chance that the grapevines survived as they are hard to burn and many of the vineyards' green vegetation and cover crops actually served as a firebreak. To help calm customer fears, vintners took steps to test their harvest and protect their products to ensure that the flavor of the grapes that remained on the vine and were in fermentation tanks weren't negatively impacted by the smoke that lingered in the area for weeks.
Surprisingly, given the scale of the disaster, relatively few wineries were actually destroyed by the fire. Domaine Carneros, Frey, Nicolson Ranch, Chateau St. Jean, Gundlach Bundschu, Lagier Meredith, Storybrook Mountain Vineyard, Mayacamas and Sky Vineyards all sustained damage while three - Signorello's, White Rock Vineyards and Paradise Ridge - were completely obliterated.
Farmworkers Hardest Hit
The biggest impact of the fires on the farm community has been the loss of farmworker property, jobs and homes. Sonoma's $600 million wine economy is largely dependent on immigrant and migrant labor. The county's agricultural sector employs between 4,000 and 6,000 year-round farm workers, many of whom are undocumented, according to the Sonoma County Farmworker Health Survey. Many of these workers also have their families living with them in the region. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, there are an estimated 38,500 undocumented immigrants in Sonoma County alone. In the aftermath of these fires, these individuals now are at risk of being left out of the recovery efforts underway in the area. Undocumented people don't qualify for federal assistance and scores aren't applying for help, or are not going to shelters out of fear that the information they put on applications for aid will be shared with immigration officials. Many others lack the photo identification required to cash relief checks at the bank or gain admittance to these facilities. Some families have even started camping on the cold and damp beaches nearby without proper equipment or clothing.
Organizations like the Northbay Jobs with Justice and UndocuFund are stepping up to assist families in need. These organizations are helping undocumented families get access to shelters, emergency gear, food and cash. UndocuFund, which was created with support from the Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, is making it possible for undocumented immigrants to find relief in the longer term by offering direct funding to undocumented immigrants that have lost their jobs as a result of the fires. The organization is also partnering with Operation Access, a San Francisco-based non-profit that provides donated medical care to the uninsured and undocumented immigrants.
How You Can Help This Holiday Season
The holidays are a perfect time to help the victims of these devastating fires. Want to get involved? Here are a few easy ways to help:
- Make a cash donation to Undocufund, Operation Access, United Way's Northern California Wildfire Relief and Recovery Fund or the Napa Valley Community Foundation's Disaster Relief Fund to help families in need.
- Donate non-perishable supplies and personal care products to the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which is providing emergency food relief to more than two dozen evacuation centers in Sonoma County.
- You can also donate to local animal shelters and wildlife organizations that are helping animals displaced by the fire, like the Humane Society of Sonoma County and Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue.
- A simple and delicious way to help farmers is to buy wine for your holiday parties and dinners from any (or all!) of the vineyards listed above that were impacted by the fires.
- Finally, a luxurious way to do your part is to take a trip to the California wine country this winter. The area is still "as beautiful as ever" and in desperate need of tourism dollars.