Napa, One Week Later

napa fire of 2017 in Rutherford

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…

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 11.37.13 AM Napa fire in yountville

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).

Napa fire in yountville

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.

Napa fire in yountville helicopter 2017

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.

napa fire in Rutherford

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:

napa fire 2017 near robert mondavi winery
wildfire in napa

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.

18 thoughts on “Napa, One Week Later”

  1. This is a beautiful post and it underscores how we, as a culture, briefly become engaged with these stories of very intense human tragedy and despair and then…move on…while the people who were affected have to continue dealing with the aftermath for months and years and lifetimes.

  2. So sad to see this happening. I hope people, once safe, can turn this into a growing moment. Maybe 2017 will become a savored vintage with smoky flavor and remembrance of how people pulled together in the face of tragedy. I hope so. Life is precious. Prayers for safety and recovery from the Midwest.

  3. I so agree I hope The Wine Industry respects everyone’s loss and keeps us clear before we just have people out looking at our losses without us being able to mourn .

  4. Beautiful sentiments, and I can understand why it would be hard to know how to “move on.” I have been glued to every source of news of these fires since they began, and because I love these areas very much, I look forward to visiting soon and encouraging others to visit. But as you said, we have to give the people and place time and space for mourning and rebuilding.

  5. I ended up in Santa Rosa one day after the tragedy that hit the Coffey Park area. My heart is still reeling from that. Being a freelance media photographer and loving grapes in all shapes and forms (especially in a bottle..), I call the Napa/Sonoma region my second home. Over the years I’ve met so many wonderful, caring, beautiful souls from that area in my photography wanderings that I can not imagine what they are going through. My favorite cafe in the whole world in Glen Ellen and it’s owners, the most genuine, down to earth couple you could ever meet were affected by this as well. But i’ll be there, to help repair, to have conversation when they need it, and to just muse with them over a great Cab about anything they want. Even after our adhd nation has moved on to the next thing. I love this region and it’s people.

  6. I’ve been saying the same thing, no where near as well. I’m offending many!
    But let’s bury our lost, find the missing and make sure those who can, get home. We can grieve. Then we can help each other back to normal.
    We Americans are great at marketing. You want a Yank in a real crisis. We have pretty good roads. But we have no clue how to grieve.
    “Don’t push the river. It flows by itself.”

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