How Fire Safe Council helped protect Sonoma, Napa county vineyards
Lagier Meredith vineyard is perched at 1,300 feet elevation on Mount Veeder, and co-vintner Carole Meredith is convinced the unsung hero that saved their property during the recent California wildfires was this vineyard.
“Fire completely encircled the property,” said Meredith, who had evacuated by that point. “There was fire coming from all sides. You can see the protective effect when you see where the fire stopped. It’s a visual thing.”
Meredith, 69, is a high risk fire fighter of sorts. The former professor of viticulture and enology at U.C. Davis may not brave the flames, but she volunteers with the grassroots, community-led Mt. Veeder Fire Safe Council.
“We try to improve firebreaks and we could have done more,” Meredith said. “We hope more people will pay attention to us now and either join us or donate. (www.mtveederfiresafe.org)
There are Fire Safe Councils throughout the state, and more are expected to pop up as a result of the wildfires. The goal of the councils is to prevent wildfire losses by mobilizing communities. (www.cafiresafecouncil.org)
“I live in a high risk area and I joined because I wanted to encourage the activities in my area to be safe,” Meredith said. “We are completely surrounded by forest. We are surrounded by fuel. By October, we’ve had five months without rain and wild fires are rampant.”
The goal is to focus on vegetation management to improve firebreaks, Meredith said. Vineyards were never a focus of the group, but Meredith is more aware of their firebreak heroics since they saved her house.
At Napa’s Signorello Estate, the vineyards also showed their capacity to thwart flames. While a building housing the tasting room burned to the ground, 42 acres of old vines survived and they are 100 percent intact, according to Charlotte Milan, who represents the winery. The fire, Milan said, just came to the edge of the vineyard and stopped.
Meanwhile at Santa Rosa’s Paradise Ridge Winery, security footage reveals that the fire went around the vineyard to burn the winery to the ground, said Rene Byck, one of the owners. The 15 acres of vines near the winery was preserved.
Nick Paganini, a firefighter with the San Francisco Fire Department, said 99 percent of the time vineyards are man-made barriers that can stop a fire in its tracks. Paganini said what’s key is that vineyards are well-tended.
The 27-year-old firefighter, on a strike team in Sonoma County during the recent wildfires, said 1 percent of the time vineyards can be problematic when the leaves on the vines are dry and the grassy areas between the vines are unkempt.
Meredith said the reason vineyards make great fire breaks is threefold.
First, the vines have a high moisture content so they protect against fires; secondly, the dirt roads carved around the vineyards for tractors – often 10 to 15 feet wide – often block fires from spreading.
Lastly, vineyards generally aren’t surrounded by a canopy of trees, so flying embers from above are less likely.
“I’m sure there are a significant number of examples in Napa Valley and Sonoma County where living in houses surrounded by vineyards saved the houses,” she said.
“Based on my own experience, the nearby Brandlin Vineyard owned by Cuvaison Estate Wines, protected a significant number of homes in the area, a dozen if not more.”
Meredith plans to stay active with her council by writing grants and tackling firebreak projects, and encourages others to do the same.
“We can’t expect public resources to save us from fires if we don’t make ourselves as fire safe as possible,” Meredith said.
“It often takes a fire to stimulate interest in Fire Safe Councils, but they’re always a good idea because you never know when the next fire is coming to your neighborhood. Get together with your neighbors in your community and be prepared for the next one.”