Butte Fire Claims Two Foothills Vineyards

Calaveras County wineries crush through adverse conditions and sales losses

by Ted Rieger
At least 14 acres from two vineyards were claimed by the Butte Fire that continues to burn in Calaveras County.
Calaveras County, Calif.—The Butte Fire that continues to burn in California’s Calaveras County caused crop loss and damage to at least two vineyards totaling 14 acres. The county’s wine industry also has been impacted by delays in harvesting some vineyards due to road closures and evacuations related to the fire. In addition, winery tasting rooms experienced sales losses due to short-term closures and reduced tourist traffic.

The Butte Fire started Sept. 9 in southern Amador County, east of the town of Jackson. The cause has yet to be confirmed, but Cal Fire is investigating the possibility that a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power line made contact with a live tree near the site of the fire’s origin. The fire quickly spread south across the Mokelumne River Canyon into Calaveras County, through dry brush and through several rural foothill communities, mostly east of Highway 49.

Based on information from Cal Fire as of this morning, the Butte Fire has burned 70,760 acres and is 74% contained. Full containment is expected Oct. 1. The fire has claimed two civilian lives and 901 structures, including 545 residences and 356 outbuildings. The fire has threatened 6,400 structures and been fought by 3,446 total fire personnel.

As of today, mandatory evacuation orders have been lifted and roads have been reopened, but advisory evacuations are still in place in some locations where the fire remains active. Figures for the number of structures burned have been increasing as areas are reopened and Cal Fire can more accurately assess damage.

Similarly, the damage toll from the Valley Fire in Lake County and parts of Napa and Sonoma counties (see “Valley Fire Devastates Lake County”) has increased to 1,030 structures destroyed. That fire has caused three deaths, burned nearly 76,000 acres and is 70% contained. Information from Cal Fire about the most damaging California wildfires in state history (based on structures burned) shows the Valley Fire now ranks third and the Butte Fire is seventh.

The majority of the Butte Fire’s acreage burned was in Calaveras County. The fire had little to no impact on Amador County wineries and vineyards, all of which are north of the burned area.

Mountain Ranch vineyards damaged
The Mountain Ranch and Sheep Ranch areas of Calaveras County, east of San Andreas and north of Murphys, and the location of several rural vineyard properties, were hit particularly hard by the fire, with damage to structures and property, mandatory evacuations and road closures. Re-entry has begun in the area, and mandatory evacuation orders have been lifted, but some advisory evacuations are still in place.

Steve Collum, who operates the vineyard management and consulting company Vineyard Concepts LLC, reported that the 9-acre Flicker Oaks vineyard, planted with Syrah and Viognier, that he leases near Mountain Ranch, lost all its crop, and about half the vines appear to be lost to fire damage along with drip irrigation lines. Collum sadly explained, “I was just ready to go in and pick on Sept. 12, and make my whole profit on the property for the year, when the fire came through.” He estimated the crop loss at $35,000, but said he has crop insurance. Two barns on the property also were burned, and tractors and other equipment were lost.

A county resident long active in the Calaveras wine community, Collum had to evacuate his own ranch property for several days. The fire came within half a mile, but his property was unharmed. Collum noted that harvest was delayed for some vineyards due to road closures and the inability of picking crews to access the properties. At one of his client vineyards, Dalton Ranch in the Dogtown area between Angels Camp and San Andreas, he said, “We were going in to pick, and the CHP (California Highway Patrol) wouldn’t let us in.” The vineyard was picked three days later.

A 5-acre Zinfandel vineyard in Mountain Ranch owned by Kevin and Theresa Locke since 1995 was engulfed by fast-moving flames that destroyed the crop prior to harvest, burned fences and melted PVC drip irrigation lines. The extent of permanent vine damage is still unknown. The Lockes’ newer vineyard property in Murphys was unharmed, and they will continue sales of Locke Vineyards wines in their tasting room in Murphys.

Mark Skenfield, owner of vineyard management company Vinescapes, based in Murphys, said he believes most of his clients’ vineyards came through unscathed, but he was still unsure about one vineyard west of Mountain Ranch, where the owner had evacuated. Skenfield also observed, “The fire delayed harvest a short time at some locations, and it inspired others to pick a little sooner, with concerns about smoke taint.” He noted that ash had fallen on some vineyards, but it was not yet possible to know if smoke taint would be a problem. Collum said, “So far I haven’t detected smoke taint in any harvested grapes or heard of taint problems at wineries this vintage.”

Winery spared in Mokelumne Hill
Sue and Mark Rueger, co-owners of Renegade Winery and tasting room on Main Street in Mokelumne Hill, near the northern border of Calaveras County, faced a close call in the early days of the fire, not far from where it started. Mokelumne Hill was evacuated for several days and without power for six days. The Ruegers worked at the winery each day during the power outage using a generator to keep the building cool to preserve bottled wines and to work the crush that had fermentations in progress. The tasting room was closed for several days, resulting in lost business.

Sue Rueger reported: “We had some scary points when the town was evacuated and we could see fire on nearby hillsides. But using air strikes with fire retardant, Cal Fire was able to put the fire out, and they did a great job saving the town, even though the hillsides all around are burned.” Renegade buys all of its grapes. The boutique winery produces just 2,500 cases a year, all sold direct through the tasting room and wine club. The winery was waiting for one more shipment of incoming grapes to complete harvest. Rueger said: “We’re very small, so any loss of wine would be huge. Hopefully our inventory made it through, and we kept our fermenting bins covered well to protect the fermenting grapes.”

Murphys wineries welcome business, help local relief efforts
Sara Reed, executive director of the Calaveras Wine Alliance, said a noticeable impact from the fire has been a decline in business and visitor traffic at tasting rooms, particularly in Murphys, home to 18 tasting rooms in southern Calaveras County. “Many of the Murphy’s tasting rooms closed during the first weekend of the fire, not so much from fear of the fire, but to allow their employees who live in other communities to take care of their homes and families,” Reed said. Some areas near Murphys and nearby Angels Camp were temporarily evacuated, but the towns never lost power. Wineries in the area, for the most part, continued with crush operations uninterrupted at their facilities, although some had to work around road closures and delays in receiving grapes.

By late last week in Murphys, Reed said, “The smoke has cleared and the wineries are all trying to get tourists to come back.” All businesses and tasting rooms in Murphys were open this past weekend. They’ve been actively inviting visitors through social and Internet media, and informing wine club members they are open for business. Calaveras wineries are also involved in fundraising efforts to help the local community affected by the Butte Fire. Brice Station Vineyards held a benefit concert Sept. 19, with proceeds donated to the Calaveras Community Foundation Disaster Relief Fund. Many tasting rooms pledged to donate a percentage of wine sales or contribute tasting room fees to the Calaveras relief fund.

Financial assistance for crop and vine losses
University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Central Sierra viticulture advisor Lynn Wunderlich sent an email to foothill growers Sept. 18 that read: “I know the last 10 days have been extremely difficult for many of us. As the Butte fire continues to burn through parts of Amador and Calaveras counties, many of those displaced by the fire are being allowed to return home, and they are getting their first glimpse of the horrific devastation the fire has left in its path. Dealing with a disaster of this magnitude can be extremely difficult, and navigating through the process of what to do and how to prioritize need can be overwhelming.” Wunderlich provided several links to information resources to assist fire victims in assessing damages and moving forward, accessible through the UCCE website.

Wunderlich also sent a link to information about U.S. Department of Agriculture programs for financial assistance for farmers and ranchers with fire losses. Financial assistance for vine losses may be available through the Tree Assistance Program administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA). (Collum is looking into assistance from FSA for vine replacement at the Flicker Oaks Vineyard.) In addition, growers with crop insurance administered by the federal Risk Management Agency should contact their crop insurance agent. For more information and links to specific programs, click here.

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