It’s still not over, as much as I wish it would be. As of this morning, there was an average of about 60% containment on the three major fires in Napa Valley, and with good conditions today, that number should be higher by tomorrow. But there’s something deeply disturbing about watching a tragedy continue to unfold day after day after day.
My out of state friends tell me how they could never live in northern California, because earthquakes are so awful and terrifying. I tell them how I could never live in Florida, because unlike hurricanes, we don’t have “Earthquake Season.” And after decades here, the longest-lasting earthquake I’ve been in was about thirty seconds.
Fire is different. It goes on and on, wreaking havoc, killing, destroying the land, robbing livelihoods. Look, I’m not saying anything close to “my disaster is worse than your disaster.” I’m just saying that seven days have passed, this tragedy isn’t done yet, and with each passing day it’s been harder and harder to keep my soul intact.
Evacuees are being allowed to return to Napa and Sonoma in large numbers now. I took advantage of this to go up to St. Helena, where the winery I work for is located. We were extremely lucky: The tasting room is completely intact, the vineyards were untouched and the grapes for the 2017 harvest are 100% picked and in the tank. We even had electricity at the production facility, so we didn’t have to resort to the medieval tactics many of my friends employed to make sure their wines were made.
So, up the highway I went…
Most of Highway 29 was like this. Columns of service vehicles, either heading north to attack the blaze or south to recoup. Firefighters, ambulances, utility trucks, you name it. It was one of the most heartening sights. These people, as the old astronauts used to say, are steely-eyed missile men (and women).
This is in Yountville – downtown is off to the right. The most ominous blaze is visible right around here: The Nuns Fire (which earlier comprised the Norbomm, Adobe, Pressley and Partrick fires, which have merged). Though it is now 50% contained, it’s coming down the hillside towards Rutherford. A volunteer water tender was killed just today in an accident on the Oakville Grade, which goes up through the large hill you see here.
One of the most incredible – and uplifting – sights occurred right near the iconic “Welcome To Napa Valley” sign. Huge helicopters were scooping up water from a nearby pond and dropping it on hotspots. There were at least four of these giants in operation, with one releasing its payload every two minutes. When I left the valley six hours later, they were still going strong.
This was the view from just south of the To Kalon Vineyard in Rutherford. There were hot spots to the south that I could tell were a containment priority. It seemed like the plan was to keep the fire from moving any further north or south, then hold off the east-bound blaze at the Oakville Grade.
Here’s the view from a few landmark wineries, just to give a sense of perspective:
It was raining ash in St. Helena. It must have been due to the winds and the location of the fire, because there wasn’t an ash rain anywhere else. Otherwise, the smoke was blowing west, which was a welcome respite for the valley.
How are we going to mourn this? Already, I am seeing talking points and media collateral from various Napa trade organizations, telling us to guide the conversation in a manner that plays up the excellent 2017 vintage, the bravery of first responders and the resilience of the community. And yes, all of those things are true, and I understand the fact that we’re talking about a $1.63 Billion-With-a-B business, and lives are inextricably intertwined with livelihoods. But people died here. Farms grown with love and passed down through generations are lost forever. Places where people lived, laughed, fell in love and got married are now ashes.
I don’t think anyone is trying to pretend this didn’t happen, but we also can’t just let the last ember burn out and suddenly slap a “Now Open!” sign on it, either. Napa is going to need a wake. It’s going to need a time of mourning and a ritual and a blessing to get us to the other side of this. Wine is ritual. It’s what we do. We make that elixer that people use to remember and use to forget.
But we can never forget. Ever.