Protecting Vineyards in Fire-Ravaged Areas

Experts: Clear debris from waterways, assess burned trees and fix drainage systems

by Andrew Adams
wine vineyard erosion fire
Fire debris should be cleared to prevent water flow that could cause erosion. Photo: Charles Schembre

Yountville, Calif.—Some of the blackened hills of the North Bay are sporting a light covering of green as new grasses push from the soil following November rains.

Yet many of the trees on those hills are dead brown, and large swaths of blackened hillside remain in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Solano counties. More than two months after fires ignited across the North Coast, much work remains to be done in ensuring the areas affected by the fires won’t be further damaged by significant erosion.

On Dec. 7, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers held a recovery session in Yountville attended by a few dozen growers and vintners and viewed by a much wider audience via livestream. Several speakers from county and state agencies offered advice and tips about how to deal with fire-damaged trees, protect vineyards from erosion and ensure waterways are clear.

Shaun Horne, watershed and flood control resource specialist with the Napa County Flood Control & Water Conservation District, said land owners should conduct a thorough assessment of trees on their property looking for damage. He said many trees in California evolved with wildfires and can survive even with 50% of foliage scorched. If cuts into a given tree’s bark reveals tissue that is green and healthy, it likely can survive, but if the tissue is brown, dry and dead—and the tree could fall across a road or onto a structure—it should be removed.

In most cases, dead trees can be left where they are, and even trees that have fallen across creeks or streams can be “modified” rather than removed. Horne said the branches can be removed and the trunk cut into sections so as to not block significant water flows or snag debris.

The county also offers a stream-maintenance program that can assist with downed trees and help cover up to 75% (up to $35,000) of the cost of stream bank-stabilization programs. Watersheds in fire areas will experience significantly higher flows, and Cal Fire produces detailed Watershed Emergency Response Team reports following a fire. These fire-specific reports can be found online as part of incident reports on fire.ca.gov.

Erosion control
Charles Schembre, vineyard conservation coordinator for the Napa County Resource Conservation District, said vineyard owners and managers in Napa Valley are generally well experienced when it comes to erosion control. “You already have a lot of skills and understanding of erosion-control measures,” he said. “Do the things you normally do.”

Schembre said he’s met with many people with property beneath blackened hillsides, and there’s an understandable urge to do something more such as cover the entire hillside with straw. However, unless that land is directly upslope from a vineyard, further action may not be needed or even helpful. “In most cases, I think it’s safe to say don’t do anything when it’s quite a bit away from your vineyard and other infrastructure,” he said.

When there is a clear need to take some action on a property that has been severely affected by the fires, or from the heavy equipment used in fighting fires, then he said it would be productive to take advantage of a side visit from county officials.

Schembre said he’s still getting called out to properties where he’s seen extensive damage to drainage infrastructure, from melted pipes to ditches that have been clogged with debris. He urged the audience to “get out there and look at every piece of drainage,” because one failure point could lead to significant problems later in the winter.

If a piece of drainage can’t be repaired or replaced, Schembre suggested opening it as a ditch and reinforcing it with rock. Existing ditches that may now be clogged should also be cleared and inspected for any damage. Water bars, designed to move water off of roads, and other erosion-control features may also have been damaged by the heavy equipment, and roads can also begin to erode from the heavy wheel ruts.

Cal Fire and PG&E may also send a work crew out to repair damage or prevent erosion in the aftermath of the fire. “It’s not just what burned but the fire management that happened on the ground,” he said.

Schembre and the RCD is hosting another erosion workshop at the Napa Valley Community College on Wednesday. 

Handling insurance claims
Shannon Antonini with American AgCredit Crop Insurance provided an overview of federal crop insurance and was asked about a situation from this vintage in which a grower sold grapes to a winery with third-party analysis that showed zero presence of smoke contamination.

Later the winery claimed smoke was starting to come through in sensory analysis, and chemical analysis was also showing positive for smoke compounds. Antonini said in that case, if the winery wants to pay at a reduced rate, there is a chance insurance could cover some of those losses. The price paid, however, would need to be at least 25% lower than the established average, and in Napa County she said there have been situations where even a reduced price is higher than the average.

In general, she said filing a claim after just the potential of losses is prudent. “I have growers who I flat out tell them every spring there’s rain to call me,” she said.

If a grower suffers through poor set and loses tonnage but waits until well after harvest to file a claim, they may be out of luck. “There’s no penalty for opening a claim,” she said. “Your rates aren’t going to go up if you open a claim.” 

Sonya DeLuca, associate director of the grapegrowers’ group, said the event came together to try and answer the most common questions that have continued to flow into the group’s office in the days and weeks after the fires. “This is a season we’ll remember for a lifetime,” she said of the recent vintage.

And as DeLuca discussed the effects of the fires in Napa and the rest of Northern California, an equally violet and severe firestorm was raging out of control in Southern California and continues to burn. The NVG has donated all its remaining N95 masks, clothing and other suppliers to other agricultural groups affected by the fires. As of Dec. 12, the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties has burned 234,200 acres and is just 20% contained.

Posted on 12.14.2017 - 12:21:27 PST
I would like the to see the many entities governing the forests and hillsides recognize and admit to many years of failed policies regarding their idea of not grassing the scrub of these hillsides. Had this brush been removed these fires would not have "crowned," killing everything in their path.