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The firefighting winemaker: Jon Berlin

The recent fires in Napa and Sonoma counties have led to numerous stories of winemakers rallying round to help their neighbours and the drinks business spoke with one who has come in for particular praise – El Molino’s Jon Berlin.

Jon and Lily Berlin

With the ‘Glass Fire’ ripping through the two key winemaking counties over the late summer and early autumn, Berlin took to his trials motorbike and began running relays between local fire crews, helping them contain the blaze and save numerous homes and livelihoods in the process.

He also acted as a crucial link between the battle on the fire line and those who had been evacuated and were faced with agonising, uncertain waiting to know if the fires had claimed their properties or not.

The San Francisco Chronicle picked up on Berlin’s exploits last month, with various winemakers heaping praise on him, saying he was, “a true hero” and “one-man army”.

Typically, Berlin himself said he never felt he was “doing anything particularly heroic,” but clearly others would disagree.

Sitting down for our Zoom call in a surplus Bundeswehr jumper, suitably rugged jaw and closely cropped hair lending him an air of Ed Harris (‘The Right Stuff’ era) crossed with actor Michael Kelly, one sees where his eulogisers are coming from.

Born in Johannesburg, Berlin did his National Service with the South African Navy in Cape Town, where he volunteered for firefighting training – for no other reason than it, “gave me three days off for every two I worked,” he explained.

Filled with highly combustible fuel and munitions, the training for firefighting on warships includes working with intensely hot fires which, 20 years later, “stood me in good stead. You never really lose that sort of training”.

After his national service, he worked for a time making surfboards and then working in the restaurant trade, before he fell (as most do) into wine. Working with Bruce Jack at Flagstone over the course of 1999-2000 he, “realised I should’ve been doing this all along”.

Stints in California, Australia and New Zealand followed (he eventually got his winemaking qualifications at Lincoln University in Christchurch), during which he met his future wife, Lily; whose family owned El Molino.

Initially planning to make wine in South Africa, Lily’s father passed away in 2005 and the pair took over the running of the winery, settling down in Spring Mountain.

And any other profile might end there – but not in this instance.

Early on the morning of 27 September, Berlin got a frantic call from another winemaker. The sky was glowing orange over Napa County not because of the coming dawn but because the approaching fire and ferocious hot, dry ‘Diablo’ winds were whipping the blaze on, with all the wineries down the valley right in its path.

El Molino is a “mom and pop operation” as Berlin called it, with just he and Lily making the wines. The estate has been in her family since 1936 and it was her father who revived the vineyards in 1987. The estate itself has a wine history dating back to 1871, while the mill after which it is named was founded in the 1840s.

With home and all that history under threat, there was only one thing to really do. Try and help. And so he set off, armed with his excellent local knowledge of Spring Mountain and a trials motorbike.

“The canyon behind us goes all the way up to Spring Mountain, so I knew my way around the terrain,” he said.

What followed, he continued, was “a lot of long days, a lot of riding”, alone most of the time and occasionally with fire on all sides.

Berlin explained that as the Glass Fire got into the hills and forests around Spring Mountain, by the second day, “the smoke was so thick…that they couldn’t get planes overhead, and didn’t know where the fire line was.”

Berlin however was able to use that local knowledge to ride well off-road, find the fire and then report its location back to the local fire crews who were then able to decide how best to tackle it.

Resource management and deployment was a critical issue in tackling the fires. As Berlin said, when a blaze gets to the size of something like the Glass Fire, you don’t put it out, it has to burn itself out and you can only do everything you can to contain it.

This strategy was hampered given the occasionally remote locations fire crews found themselves in and, even worse, sometimes running out of water too.

Here Berlin’s local knowledge and contacts also came into play. David Abreu, a well known viticulturist and vineyard manager, owns several vehicles for vineyard work that would prove crucial. These include water tenders able to bring an additional 4,000 gallons (15,000 litres) to bear.

When the fire crews at Stony Hill Vineyard (less than two miles up the road from El Molino) ran out of water, Berlin was able to call up Abreu and his team drove a tender up to replenish the engine.

Abreu’s D9 bulldozer was also employed digging fire breaks. A hulking, caterpillar-tracked thing, normally put to use by the Abreu team for uprooting old or preparing new vineyards, Berlin sounded genuinely concerned when he described seeing it teetering rather precariously on some of the steep hillsides as it went about its new role.

“It didn’t look like a good idea but it cut a three mile fire break in under an hour,” he said. “The driver had been doing it for 20 years and their skill was incredible.”

And to top it all, as well as helping his neighbours El Molino had a narrow escape too. Thankfully, the fire that threatened El Molino was “largely a ground fire, not raging through the canopy”. Still, it got to within just 40 feet (12 metres) of the property and was only stopped by a road that acted as a firebreak, which then allowed helicopters to drop fire retardant and contain it, whereupon it burnt itself out after an uneasy week.

“You could throw a cricket ball into it, that’s how close it was,” said Berlin. After a good week of intense activity the situation was gradually brought under control.

Berlin said that the Cal Fire battalion chief, Darren Johnson, had remarked this was the first year, “where locals have really, actually helped the crews. Before they’ve either got in the way or [worse] put themselves in harm’s way.”

Although Berlin said he “never felt particularly intimidated” by the situation, it was also, one can well imagine, “very emotional” at times. This was especially the case when relaying information back to those who had been evacuated and wanted to know what was going on.

“I know all of these people,” said Berlin. “They’re friends I’ve known for a very long time, I know their properties. Relaying information that homes were ok was a huge relief to a lot of people. It’s beneficial in terms of general anxiety because you get a lot of conflicting reports.”

Fires can change direction quickly too, and while Cal Fire Service has a map of where fires are they’re not updated in real time. By the time it’s updated the information could be hours old and what’s marked as a ‘fire’ could very well have burnt itself out or been put out, so hearing from either Berlin or Lily meant a very great deal.

Lily had been (unsurprisingly), “not thrilled at first” with his role, though Berlin added that, “she came around when she started to relay info from me to property owners on the mountain”.

So soon after something so terrible one can’t bear to consider having to do it all again but, sadly, with the fires becoming so frequent it’s a real possibility. Is there anything that could be learned from such a collaborative experience and put to use in future?

“Our situation is quite…unique,” mused Berlin and it’s certainly true that there may be a shortage of cross-country bikers with firefighting training out there – maybe. The dual use of winemaking equipment to support firefighting efforts might be more widely applicable (if indeed it’s even that novel) but sadly the root causes of the issues go beyond the grit and equipment local winemakers can offer.

First and foremost there are the historic drought conditions that the West Coast is experiencing, making perfectly normal wildfires, not only more widespread but also larger and more dangerous. This year was the worst wildfire year on record. From 1 January to 15 November 2020, Cal Fire has tackled 7,600 fires covering over 1.4 million acres. Fires in 2019 over the same period covered just 252,000 acres.

The August Complex Fire that burnt further north in California this autumn grew to encompass over one million acres, making it the first ‘gigafire’ ever recorded. A grim milestone.

Secondly, while President Donald Trump tried to link the fires solely to [a lack of] “forest management”, it is true that poor husbandry of forests, especially close to urban conurbations, has left the woods full of dense underbrush and dead trees. All of this provides perfect fuel in the dry conditions to create an inferno and also mean flames can spread more easily into the canopies, creating much more intense and destructive fires.

“All this fuel in all of these forests and combined with the climate getting warmer it’s like a time bomb waiting to go off,” said Berlin. To use a naval analogy, if California were a warship it seems the safety precautions around its magazines are compromised; a potentially lethal situation.

And, unfortunately, as long as these two factors remain then the work of emergency crews and volunteers such as Berlin, while immense, are a stopgap not a solution.

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