Updated Oct. 12: Wildfires damage farms, ranches, wineries

Issue Date: October 11, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman

Northern California's rash of wildfires continues to take a toll on agriculture in the region, though it's still not possible to assess the damage thoroughly.

 "A lot of the affected areas we can't get into just yet," St. Helena vineyard manager Manuel Rios said Thursday. "I have at least three vineyards that have fire damage, but I don't know how much because we can't get in there."

Napa County is dealing with several large fires, including the Atlas Fire, which stood at nearly 44,000 acres and 3 percent containment as of Thursday afternoon, according to Cal Fire.

Rios, also the Napa County Farm Bureau president, estimated about 25 percent of the grapes in the county remain to be picked. Most of these are cabernet sauvignon.

"We're picking everything we can right now as fast as we can," Rios said. "With all the road closures and the evacuations and everything, you don't know if all the crews are going to show up, and that's fine. We understand that. We just tell them, whoever can and wants to can show up, and we do what we can."

Communications and power outages, in addition to the road closures, make an assessment of the situation difficult, Rios said.

"We're all kind of in the same boat," he said. "Nobody really has a lot of good information. A lot of them can't get back into some of the vineyards that were affected because of all the road closures. The sheriff's department's not letting you in, not even if you live there."

Near Atlas Peak, cattle rancher Bill Bishop was dealing with a significant loss. One of his ranches, along Soda Canyon Road, was overrun by fire so quickly Sunday night that some 40 head of cattle perished. He first noticed the smell of smoke about 8:30 that night.

"We're lucky to get out with our lives," Bishop said Thursday. "We went up there, and we opened the gates up and cut the fences, tried to get the cattle as free as we could."

The flames, however, were too much.

"It was the biggest flame-storm you ever saw in your life," Bishop said.

Bishop, who has ranches all around Napa Valley and in Solano County, said he knows several of the others have burned but has not been able to tally the losses yet.

"We're just in a heck of a mess," he said. "I'm so confused right now that it's hard to even talk about it."

In Mendocino County, Devon Jones, executive director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, has been busy coordinating access for vineyard owners, managers and employees to move equipment and look for damage.

Yuba County, where the Cascade Fire is nearly half contained, has lost pasture land and barns but no large-scale operations have been affected, said Jessica DeCoito, executive director of the Yuba-Sutter Farm Bureau. She said the sheriff's office and others helped rescue nearly 100 horses and other large animals, and as many cats, dogs and other small animals. Many of the animals are at the local fairgrounds and other shelters.

"The community has stepped up to help volunteer feeding and walking dogs and cleaning pens," DeCoito said, adding that the fairgrounds has received so many donations of food, water and other supplies that some are now being diverted to other shelters.

Relief efforts in fire-stricken areas for people and livestock are coming together.

At the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, Emily Janowski is coordinating efforts to get donations directly to those needing them. In a Facebook post Wednesday afternoon, the Farm Bureau asked anyone in the following situations to contact Janowski at emily@sonomafb.org: those who can take in evacuated animals; those who have taken in evacuated animals and need supplies; those who want to donate hay, feed or other livestock supplies; and those who need supplies or assistance because their farm or ranch has been damaged by the fires.

Similar efforts are underway at Western United Dairymen. Anja Raudabaugh, chief executive of the Modesto-based dairy group, said 15 dairies in Sonoma County and two in Mendocino County have been evacuated.

"We have evacuated almost 4,000 cows," Raudabaugh said. "We've managed to kind of share spaces with neighbors. The Sonoma County Fairgrounds is teeming with livestock right now."

The big problem now is feeding all these cows, she said.

"We don't have enough feed," Raudabaugh said. "So it's one thing to save animals, but a lot of our pastures have been threatened or are under evacuation or are on fire."

She said grain companies are offering to ship railcars to the area, and hay companies are offering to send hay from Oregon and Washington.

WUD also has launched a supply drive for people and animals. Donations should be brought on Oct. 20 to the WUD office at 1315 K St. in Modesto. WUD will have trucks available that day to haul donated supplies to Sonoma County.

Winegrapes are the No. 1 crop in Sonoma and Napa counties, and a lot of attention is being paid to the region's wineries and vineyards.

In a statement Wednesday, the Napa Valley Vintners group said it has reached out to all of its members and has heard from more than 120. Five wineries in the Napa Valley had been confirmed destroyed or severely damaged, according to the statement, and 11 others had suffered some damage; the fate of many others remained unknown.

Similar obstacles prevailed in Sonoma County, where Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, issued a statement Wednesday.

"With more than 90 percent of the winegrape harvest completed in Sonoma County, many growers in safe zones are heading out to begin picking the remainder of their crops, provided they can get their grapes to their winery destination," Kruse said.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.) 

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.