California Forum

It’s time for California’s wine country to prepare for the next wildfire

Helicopters battle fire in the mountains between Highway 29 and Highway 12 on Sunday October 15, 2017, near Oakville, Calif. in the Napa Valley.
Helicopters battle fire in the mountains between Highway 29 and Highway 12 on Sunday October 15, 2017, near Oakville, Calif. in the Napa Valley. Sacramento Bee

My family and I moved to the Napa Valley in 2013, in search of a new life and fulfillment of a dream. My wife and I met and married in Washington, D.C. but we were drawn here by the lifestyle, the love of the land and the opportunity it held for me to pursue a long held ambition – living and working in the food and wine industry.

Like so many others, we watched last fall as the smoke rose and eventually overtook our neighborhood in St. Helena. Eventually we packed up our baby boy, our dog and of course, plenty of wine, spending the next several days with friends in Sacramento.

Wildfire is nothing new in California.What has changed are the number of neighborhoods, businesses and farms that now stand in harm’s way.

As the manager of a restaurant, I had serious concerns about my friends and colleagues. Most of us made it through unscathed, but some lost everything.

The reality is, we’re facing a changing landscape here in the Napa Valley. Wildfire is nothing new in California; in this region, the climate and topography make it a virtual guarantee.

Yet what has changed are the number of neighborhoods, businesses and farms that now stand in harm’s way. Some studies show that more Californians than ever are living in areas that were previously wilderness – a prime area for fire to refresh the ecosystem.

I understand why people want to live in quiet, isolated areas, but with fires and winds getting worse, we need to take more precautions.

Having talked with people around the area in the last few months, it seems there are some steps we should take:

Create a new fund devoted to spreading the word that Napa Valley is still open for business. Tourism is the lifeblood of this area and it’s important that we convey the message that while our fears were great, the actual damage, while tragic, was smaller than it could have been.

Develop a reliable and comprehensive early warning system that will provide families like mine with the time to prepare and save treasured possessions. My family was fortunate; we evacuated out of an abundance of caution, with plenty of time to prepare. We need a partnership between tech companies and the private sector to help provide a high-alert protocol that would give other families the same opportunity.

Increase public safety funding and programs to provide emergency personnel the resources they need to increase staff and equipment when fire danger is at its worst. Everyone in our area understands the effort and bravery that first responders demonstrated last year. We should work with all levels of government to ensure they have what’s needed – even as wildfire season starts again.

None of us will forget last year’s fires. But if we don’t take precautions now, history will repeat itself.

Any good winemaker knows that the best wine is made when the vines suffer a bit – the difficulty makes the plant stronger and the fruit better. Similarly, we have an opportunity to emerge from this crisis wiser, stronger and more prepared as a community.

Regardless, after a wet winter that will lead to an abundance of new fuel by summer, another wildfire season is looming. I hope for my friends, customers and our larger community that we don’t delay.

Lee Charles Gregory Neal is a restaurant manager and sommelier, who lives with his wife, son and dog in St. Helena. Reach him at gregory.c.neal@gmail.com.

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