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Deepening Drought Holds 'Ominous' Signs For Wildfire Threat In The West

Owner and founder Jeff Smith in front of what remains of Hourglass' winery and processing facility in Napa. He's rebuilding, but wildfires have him re-thinking everything about his land and business.
Eric Westervelt
Owner and founder Jeff Smith in front of what remains of Hourglass' winery and processing facility in Napa. He's rebuilding, but wildfires have him re-thinking everything about his land and business.

After one of the most destructive and extreme wildfire seasons in modern history last year, a widening drought across California and much of the West has many residents bracing for the possibility this season could be worse.

Anemic winter rain and snowfall has left reservoirs and river flows down significantly, even as the state experiences its driest water year in more than four decades. Today, wildfire fuels in some parts of California are at or near record levels of dryness.

Fuel moisture — the amount of water inside a living plant — "is the lowest that we've recorded at these sites since 2013," says Craig Clements, director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University. "It's indicative of very dangerous conditions coming into this summer."

Those hazardous conditions are the result of drier, hotter weather and accelerated vegetation drying due to a warming climate, combined with more than a century of fire suppression, that has left many forests with treacherous amounts of built-up fuel. Those two factors are now amplifying each other, says Daniel Swain, a leading climate scientist at UCLA and the Nature Conservancy.

"I think, unfortunately, as bad as things have been recently, this year looks like another year that has some really ugly potential," Swain says.

Climate scientists point out that a menacing wildfire potential this year doesn't necessarily mean that anything will happen. "Really, that's just going to be a matter of luck," Swain says. But "of all the aspects that are predictable, they all look pretty ominous."

As dire drought conditions spread, all could get exacerbated again by warmer than normal temperatures.

"Summer temperatures are forecasted by the National Weather Service to be above normal again all across the West, including California," says Amanda Sheffield, a regional drought information coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Integrated Drought Information System.

California has already had a pretty rapid snowmelt for this time of year, she notes, so upper elevations "could be particularly vulnerable earlier than usual as we move into midsummer."

But it's a forecast some in wildfire and pandemic-battered California may not want to hear.

Wildfire scarred hills behind the famous Welcome to Napa sign.
Eric Westervelt / NPR
Wildfire-scarred hills are visible behind the famous sign welcoming visitors to Napa Valley.

On a recent day in Napa County's picturesque Calistoga, tourists are returning in droves more than ready for a post-lockdown generous pour, and to take in the beautiful, if fire-scarred, landscape.

But Calistoga — like a handful of other cities — has already imposed emergency water restrictions because of the drought. So the city's energetic mayor, Chris Canning, has to balance boosterism with realism.

Canning notes that since the city's founding in 1862, residents have only been evacuated twice, both times in the last four years because of wildfire. "Not a good resume for a mayor," he says with a smile. "But absolutely necessary for the safety and protection of our residents. And we'll do it again if we have to."

To get a jump on any fires this season, Canning is pleased that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, has dedicated a new firefighting helicopter and a 24/7 firefighting crew of nearly 50 men and women for Napa County. Cal Fire has beefed up its wildfire fighting capacity statewide, adding several specially modified S-70i Firehawk helicopters to its fleet. These are more agile and versatile than its old UH-1H, or Huey, helicopters.

And the mayor says most of the region's residents get it: Climate-fueled wildfires are an ongoing threat. So people are building bigger fire breaks, making an evacuation plan and clearing brush — creating what firefighters call defensible space on their properties.

But Canning admits that's not everyone.

"The other school of thought is let's pretend, you know, what happened in the past is the past, it'll never happen again," the mayor says. "The amnesia response is problematic, especially if you're not taking the precautions you need to as a business or a resident to be prepared. That's where it's dangerous."

The entrance to Hourglass Winery, with the Napa Sheriff's evacuated tag from last year's Glass Fire blowing in the wind.
Eric Westervelt / NPR
The entrance to Hourglass winery, with an evacuation tag from the Napa County Sheriff's Office from last year's Glass Fire blowing in the wind. Residents place these tags on their properties before evacuating, easing the job of first responders.

In late September, the fast-moving Glass Fire badly damaged nearly 30 Napa wineries, including family-owned Hourglass wines. It swept through as the region was still recovering from 2017's record-setting fires.

"That was all remnants of the old farmhouse," says Jeff Smith, Hourglass' founder and president, as he walks near a pile of charred stones — all that remain of the winery's guesthouse, built in 1852.

But Smith says the hardest loss was the grove of old growth redwood, Douglas fir, oak and olive trees, even older than the house, most which now lie burnt and stacked for salvage.

"To me that was the soul of the property, those trees," he says. "The buildings can be rebuilt, but the couple hundred-year-old trees, you know, you can't just magically bring those right back."

Hourglass' winemaking building is a total loss. Steel fermentation and storage tanks sit like sad, damaged sculptures: Most of the 2020 vintage is still inside, cooked and useless.

The devastating Glass Fire was just one of nearly 10,000 California wildfires last year that burned more than 4 million acres — a modern record. Across the West, more than 14,000 structures were destroyed, causing billions in damages. At least 46 people were killed as California, Oregon and Colorado — all saw record-breaking "megafires."

Smith, who was born and raised in Napa, is rebuilding. But he says the more frequent, more destructive wildfires have him rethinking everything about how he manages his land, business and life.

"You know, I grew up here. All of my roots are here, and it's my intention to stay and rebuild," he says. "But I think that there's a lot of game-changing thought processes that we need to be going through."

Past vintages, stored in wooden barrels in stone and cement caves built into the hillside, survived the fire. Smith is looking to rebuild stronger and smarter.

"We're taking a much harder look at materials, defensible space, at fire suppression systems, access. You know, all of these kinds of things to try to mitigate this into the future."

And Smith is hopeful. He aims to rebuild enough this summer to crush and process this year's grape harvest in a new facility here, along Napa's famed Silverado Trail in September.

At least, that's the plan.

"I tell my winemaking team: Have a backup plan!" Smith says with a laugh. In a world-class wine region turned wine and wildfire zone, he concedes, "It's always good to have a Plan B."

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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