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California Wildfire Season Nearly Claims Historic Vineyard

August 2017
by Jaime Lewis and Jane Firstenfeld

Santa Maria, Calif.—Fueled by high temperatures, low humidity and winds, the Alamo Fire that burned near Santa Maria came within feet of the revered Bien Nacido Vineyards before changing directions. The fire consumed nearly 29,000 acres before being contained, with more than 2,000 fire crews working on the blaze at its most destructive.

A fire three weeks earlier threatened Bien Nacido Vineyards, which was settled as a Spanish land grant in 1837 and planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in 1973 by the Miller Family. An original adobe home from 1855 remains on the property today, surrounded by vines.

Reached during the fire, Nicholas Miller of the Miller family that owns Bien Nacido said the Alamo Fire had burned up to North Canyon Vineyard owned by Treasury Wine Estates, just to the north, but had stopped at the vineyard.

Nearby tasting rooms for Byron and Cambria were temporarily closed in response to the fire and smoke, and about 300 residents of Tepusquet Canyon were given mandatory evacuation warnings.

Rather than protecting California from wildfires, the wet winter led to rapid growth of weeds and grasses that quickly browned in the summer heat, providing ready fuel for wildfires, according to Cal Fire, which coordinates with local and federal agencies to combat wildfires.

Heather Williams, spokesperson for Cal Fire, reported that as of July 9, more than 68,000 acres had been consumed by fire in 2017 compared to 30,574 acres during the same dates in 2016. Williams called the numbers “staggering” and noted that the number of wildfires also increased by 635 from the previous year at the same time with 2,905 fires reported to the agency.

These fires were scattered across the entire state, with a completely random pattern. “We can never predict where they’ll break out,” Williams said. Variations in topography, weather and wind influence where and how far a given blaze will spread.

Unfortunately, even when vineyards are not physically singed, nothing can contain the billowing smoke. As grapes reach véraison, smoke presents an ongoing peril for growers that may not be fully determined until harvest.

Like homeowners, wineries should ensure they maintain 100 feet of defensible space around their structures. Additionally, vineyard managers are advised to clear dead weeds and vegetation as well as trim branches 6 feet from the ground.

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