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California wildfires: Firefighters gaining upper hand as death toll rises to 40

The wildfires that continue to rage throughout northern California have claimed 40 lives, levelled at least eight wineries and damaged countless others, but efforts to contain the numerous infernos are now turning a corner, according to the California Fire Service.

Pulido Walker saw its family home burned to the ground, but the winery and vineyards escaped destruction. Credit: Pulido Walker, Facebook

Over the weekend nearly 11,000 firefighters continued to beat back the flames of 15 large wildfires across California. As of Sunday, 217,566 acres had burned, an estimated 5,700 structures destroyed with 40 people now confirmed to have died in the blaze, and many more still missing.

While fires continue to burn throughout the region, and thousands of people remain evacuated from their homes, firefighters have said they are gaining the upper hand since the blaze first began seven days ago, as winds mercifully begin to drop.

“Progress has been made on several fronts, many evacuations have been able to be lifted,” Cal Fire said in a statement on Sunday.

“As of Sunday morning, nearly 75,000 people remain evacuated. Winds across Northern California have been fairly light this morning and the earlier Red Flag Warnings for the area will be lifted at 8am. In Southern California, Red Flag Warnings remain in effect due to gusty winds, low humidity and high fire danger. The winds are likely to continue throughout the day.”

Having ignited in the early hours on Monday (9 October), fires swept throughout northern California by high winds and were most damaging in the Atlas Peak-Stag’s Leap area near Yountville, in Sonoma County between Kenwood and Santa Rosa, and in the mountains north and west of Calistoga.

As reported by the drinks business, among the wineries known to have been most severely affected are Signorello in Napa, Paradise Ridge in Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and Paras Vineyards in Napa, Mount Veeder.

Other wineries confirmed to have suffered severe damage include Segassia Vineyard in Mount Veeder and White Rock Vineyards in Stag’s Leap.

Added to that growing list this morning is Helena View Johnston in Calistoga, whose owner Charles Johnston said was destroyed in the Tubbs fire.

“Everything was annihilated and the scorched earth is unbelievable,” he told Mercury News.

Mayacamas Vineyards in Napa is also reported to have lost one of its historic buildings in the fire, and its tasting room, but the winery itself, built in 1889, has survived.

Writing on Facebook, the winery was defiant: “What we still might have is far more important than what we have lost. Please keep hoping for continued glimmers of hope in the midst of this huge tragedy for so many people in wine country and beyond.”

Pulido Walker in Mt. Veeder also suffered extensive damage, with the estate’s family home completely destroyed.

Writing on its Facebook page the winery said: “Pulido Walker suffered a devastating loss of our home, but thus far the Estate vineyards seem to have withstood the destruction from the flames. Most importantly, we and our team are safe. Please continue to keep Napa in your thoughts and prayers. #patientpursuitofthepossible.”

Likewise Hagafen Cellars, on the Silverado Trail, and the region’s only kosher winery, lost its crush pad, agricultural equipment and guesthouse in the blaze, but its main building and tasting room has survived.

On its Facebook page the winery confirmed: “We are all safe. All of our employees are safe. The winery building appears to be fine. The tasting room also appears to be fine though much of the vegetation surrounding it is black and burned. That is the good news.

“The bad news is that the back of the winery, the crush pad, is partially burned and we cannot fully assess the condition of the equipment until the power returns. Sadly, everything along the back fence is completely burned. All of our agricultural equipment is destroyed. Our chicken house is burned. Our guest house is totally burned. All of the trees are burned. About one acre of the Cabernet Sauvignon adjacent vineyard is burned.

“What this all will mean for vintage 2017 is yet to be determined. Much of our wine is already inside and resting in barrels. As for vintage 2018, I am reasonably certain that we will continue, repair the damage, replace the equipment needed, etc. We have been humbled by nature once again but we remain resilient, adaptive, creative and happy to be alive.”

In Sonoma, the family home at the Gundlach Bundschu Winery was completely destroyed, while the winery suffered some damage.

Katie Bundschu posted on the family winery’s Facebook on Saturday: “Today has been a day of reflection and “wait and see” when it comes to the fires. I spent some of the day digging through the rubble at my parents’ house, with little to no luck finding anything intact. In terms of the fire, the winds are supposed to return tonight and into tomorrow. I feel confident that we are in a good position, yet still a bit on-edge.

“I continue to be amazed by our Gun Bun community. As the family has been working on protecting the winery from additional damage, preparing for the future and navigating through the emotions of losing our parents’ house, there have been people all around us who continue to ensure the business keeps chugging along-at least the parts we can control.”

In Mendocino, some of the wineries affected include the Backbone Vineyard, whose winery has burned down, Frey Vineyards Winery, which is reported to have suffered significant damage, and Oster Wine Cellars, which has also been largely destroyed.

Speaking to the Wine Spectator, Sattie Clark, owner of Backbone said: “Our winery burned to the ground along with all our wine made over the past five years.”

Many more wineries other than those mentioned here are expected to have been damaged, with widespread evacuations still affecting much of the region.
The California Wine Institute has provided contacts for ways to help to in the relief effort, while Napa Valley Vintners has reactivated the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund, which it established in 2014 following the South Napa earthquake. Those wishing to make donations can contribute via the Community Foundation of Napa Valley’s website, or by clicking the link available on the website.
UK wine merchant Roberson’s has also set up a JustGiving page to raise funds within the wine trade for the California wildfire relief effort. If you’d like to help, you can make a donation on Roberson’s JustGiving page.
For an up-to-date map detailing the extent of wildfires in northern California, click here. 

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