Napa County considers multi-pronged wildfire prevention, battle plan
Following a summer of historic wildfires that ripped through Northern California, Napa County is working with Cal Fire to receive the services of a firefighting helicopter and nearly four dozen state firefighters for this year's fire season, officials have announced.
A helicopter capable of dropping 1,000 gallons of water at a time will bolster firefighting resources in the county, as well as 46 people who will staff a 24-hour fire crew, county officials said in a news release Saturday. The additions represent about a $3 million investment, according to Napa County.
The moves follow a summer in which the Hennessey and Glass fires wreaked unprecedented damage to Napa County's heavily wooded northern tracts, spreading to nearly half the county's land area and destroying hundreds of homes in the Lake Berryessa and Deer Park areas. Wine grape losses caused by smoke taint from the Hennessey Fire, triggered by an August lightning storm, also were blamed for contributing to a 36% fall-off in grape production from Napa and Sonoma counties.
"This investment by the State is a testament to the longstanding cooperative agreement between Napa County and Cal Fire," the agency's Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit chief Shana Jones said in the statement. "... These additional resources are a welcome addition to our joint efforts as we work to combat more extreme wildfires in the face of our changing climate."
Leaders with Napa County Fire and Cal Fire's aviation unit are working on where to place the additional helicopter assigned to Napa County, officials said in the Saturday statement.
In addition to the helicopter and crew members to be assigned to Napa County, Cal Fire also will base another 1,000-gallon helicopter at its Boggs Mountain base in Lake County in time for this year's wildfire season, according to Napa County Fire Chief Geoff Belyea. That aircraft will be able to reach Napa County airspace in less than five minutes once airborne, he said in the Saturday announcement.
Despite the promise of stronger backup from California, advocates of a plan to base two small fixed-wing firefighting planes in Napa County said Sunday their proposal remains as critical to local safety as ever.
The environmental coalition Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture seeks to have a pair of Fire Boss single-engine aircraft on local standby this year, with each craft able to scoop 800 gallons of water at a time from Lake Berryessa or Lake Hennessey and drop repeated payloads on a wildfire. The group is offering to rent the planes from a private contractor for six months and raise the $1.5 million fee if it can work out an agreement with Cal Fire.
"We feel that the Fire Boss is just another tool we need to use, and we need to use it now," said Randy Dunn, founder of Dunn Vineyards in Howell Mountain and a member of the Growers/Vintners group, who predicted fixed-wing planes would be both cheaper to operate and quicker into the air than helicopters. "... If we have another fire, or smoke like we've had, the wine industry is going to be severely damaged even more than it was, and it will lead to huge economic downturns, huger than what we have now."
Any resistance to the officer by the state or county is "just boneheaded thinking," added Mike Hackett, another Growers/Vintners member who also lives at Howell Mountain. "We can get two aircraft that can do six or seven runs in the first hour and just keep going. A helicopter is expensive to operate and slow to get going.
"Why choose second best? It's just boneheaded. We can do much, much better and we can do it free (to the county). It's just outrageous that it's not happening. There isn't a citizen in Napa County that's opposed to having Fire Boss planes parked full time. Everyone in county wants it, but a boneheaded bureaucracy is opposing it. It's inexcusable; people should stand up and holler on this one."