Napa vintner pushes for fire prevention in wake of Glass Fire

In the early morning hours of Sept. 27, a Napa Valley winery owner and his wife awoke to the glow of fire. They escaped the flames, which also largely spared their home and three surrounding vineyards.

“But the wildlands surrounding the property were absolutely devastated,” Rick Jones, vintner and owner of Jones Family Vineyards, said about the Glass Fire. “At that point, I realized that this was something that we had to take seriously, and I volunteered to lead a committee of Napa Valley Vintners to try to understand what we could do to protect all of our properties and all of our lives going forward.”

Jones spoke about the committee’s work during his presentation at the Business Journal’s 21st annual Wine Industry Conference, held virtually July 14.

Napa Valley Vintners is a 550-member nonprofit trade association that promotes the Napa Valley wine region. The focus of the committee includes individual property protection, community-wide fuel reduction efforts, support for firefighting and suppression, mitigating the impact of smoke taint, and long-term land/watershed management practices.

Jones said actions property owners can take include hardening and protecting structures by installing fire sprinkler systems and fire prevention systems in facilities to keep fire from spreading to the wildlands, and creating defensive space immediately around structures — something Jones had done prior to the Glass Fire.

“We had cleared all of the trees immediately around the property,” Jones said. “We had vineyards that surrounded three quarters of our property that kept the fire from becoming as intense as it could have been if it was able to get within 10 or 15 feet of our property.”

Jones also discussed another critical element of fire events on businesses.

The financial impact of last year’s fires — from both the Glass Fire and LNU Lightning Complex fires that burned a combined 431,000 acres — on Napa’s wine industry alone came at a cost of about $2.3 billion, Jones said, noting about $250 million of that cost was to properties, including his own.

But the bigger cost is to the business community at large, he stated.

More than $2 billion was lost in sales because of tasting rooms having to close, destroyed vineyards that reduced the amount of wine that could be produced, and grapes that could not be harvested because the wildfire smoke may have affected the grapes, he said.

“Those (vineyards) that were affected by smoke, or at least the risk of smoke was there, is really the biggest cost of the wildfires. And that's why this is all of our problem,” Jones said. “It's not just those of us who are living in the hills or have businesses located in the hills. This affects everybody in Wine Country, on the valley floor, in the cities, as well as in the rural parts of the community.”

There is much work to be done, including tackling inadequate fire insurance coverage, Jones noted. But he also expressed optimism, especially about trying to secure more than $20 million in grants available to push forward fire mitigation efforts.

“Napa County has committed $10 million annually over the next five years to fund the efforts that need to be done to mitigate fuel loads, particularly around evacuation areas in grassier areas, and creating buffer zones around populated areas in the county in the hills,” Jones said.

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