Dave Jefferson on the impact of the runaway fires in California

Friday, 27 October, 2017
Dave Jefferson
The devastation in California from the fires is massive. Dave Jefferson has a leg in both the Californian and South African Wine industries, and he shares his first-hand experiences with us.

Since I have been coming to South Africa regularly since 2004 (38 trips), and have been a vineyard owner for the past 17 years, I have experienced, at least visually, my share of Cape mountain wildfires. In 1997, I watched all the Stellenbosch hillsides aflame; in 2013 we had a second colossal fire in the Breedekloof, just above our Silkbush Mountain vineyard, which severely damaged our neighbors but missed us. The fires are always terrifying but seldom seem to touch many Cape homes, and rarely do vineyards themselves get burned. So at some level perhaps I was somewhat prepared for what has happened the last few weeks in Sonoma and Napa Counties (NorCal) but perhaps unreasonably confident that nothing really bad would ever happen to us, our friends, and our local wine industry.

That all changed, starting about 11am on Monday, 9th Oct. My wife Catherine and I were finishing a vacation in Ponte de Lima, a small village in Portugal, walking in a park, when her son Casey called: “Mom, Kenwood (our village in Sonoma) is on fire.”  Since Casey, a former ambulance driver, EMT, and now working as a highly regarded tech in the operating rooms of a major hospital, is usually very calm and does not overstate matters we took him very seriously. However, the truth was that he was greatly understating matters in Sonoma County, although he did not realize it when he made the 3am call.

We followed the growing fire reports via text, phone, internet, and WhatsApp, as we moved toward Lisbon, feeling pretty helpless. After three days, we decided to cut the vacation short, purchased new tickets, and flew back to San Francisco, knowing full well that our area had been evacuated, the fires were still out of control, and we had no place to go. Very fortunately, old friends in San Rafael (closer to San Francisco), took us in for four days, until we could return to Kenwood via backroads. (The main roads were closed for almost two weeks.)

Wine grape report: our Russian River Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards had been harvested earlier and were not damaged but we had 1200-1500 tons of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes left to pick in Napa County. (Cab is normally the last grape to ripen.) That effort was stopped in its tracks and we have just resumed the harvest a few days ago. We hope the grapes have only a little “smoke taint,” but that remains to be seen. The wineries are accepting the deliveries and we will see what the quality is when the bulk wine comes out of the tanks. Perhaps two dozen local wineries were burned, but out of over 1,000 local wineries in the two counties, the immediate impact on the 2017 production of the premium wine businesses is modest.

Personal report: Somehow our house was spared, but a number of friends’ homes were not. Our close friends, the O’Connors to the east and a bit south and the Holmes to the west, had homes that were wiped out. For the indefinite future, they are now living in the vacation units in our Barn and our Cottage while they determine if they will rebuild, and if so, when and how. In the attached illustration, near the top, you can just make out “enw…” which is our village Kenwood. If you go West across Sonoma Highway, and SW of the “enw,” you hit a little light green spot which is where we live. So major wildfires were around us on three sides. (If a semi-barren horse meadow just to our west had not been overgrazed by a neighbor, the fire might have gotten to us as well.) If possible, other friends of ours had even closer calls with their homes.

Catherine’s 93-year-old mother was living on the Santa Rosa west side of an 8 lane freeway when the fire jumped over and burned a very large, middle-income neighborhood, after devastating an upscale area in the hills known as Fountaingrove. Any structure located up high, or made of wood some years ago, or surrounded by trees was at significant risk for some 10 days or more. Her mother was evacuated by the people who own/run the nursing home, perhaps 30 minutes or less before the flames leveled the home. To say the least, it was a very close call.

As you would imagine, the personal suffering, home devastation, and wine tourism damage is immense and will be felt for years. In Sonoma, the magnitude of the fire’s devastation is hard to conceive. The first night the fire, driven by 80 MPH winds, came from Napa and burned over 6,700 homes and businesses in the City of Santa Rosa.

A major middle-class subdivision was leveled, including the home of our Sonoma County Vineyard Manager, Enrique Lopez. Hundreds of upscale, custom homes for doctors, politicians, city and county employees, business owners are now all ashes. At least 42 people died in the fires, mostly seniors over 75 in age, and many are believed to just have waited too late to leave their homes in the middle of the night. In Napa, at least 569 homes were destroyed, and the final count is not yet in.

We had a very tight property market (house vacancy rate of 0.9 percent, and rentals at 3.2 percent) before this disaster, with difficult building rules, and little more than 300 houses have been built each year in the County. How Santa Rosa and Sonoma are going to work through the housing shortage in unknown. Will the government permit temporary homes, mobile homes, caravans, and the like be brought in and occupied while the rebuilding effort commences? Where will the laborers needed to rebuild the homes live during these many years of undertaking? It will likely take Sonoma County a decade to recover, but recover we must and we will.

With the terrible drought continuing in the Western Cape, we realize our many local Cape friends have their own challenges to deal with. But like us, at least they have their own homes to return to daily. Thousands over here are not so fortunate. Wine tourism is expected to fall dramatically for some time to come, which means many in the related service business, including tasting room, restaurants, car rentals, and the like, will lose their jobs.

It is not fun writing this report, but as my late, wonderful and very insightful father used to say, “Son, you must deal with reality.”


The Map below very clearly shows the incredibly wide extent of the area damaged.

Red images being buildings totally destroyed, and the Yellow showing damaged property. The devastation is immense.
Our thoughts are with our fellow wine industry colleagues and friends in California.

To keep up to date:  visit www.fire.ca.gov

The fires are still burning and have been quoted as being 'catastrophic'

FUNDRAISER BY DAVE MATTHEWS for fire victims in the USA

South African born rocker, Dave Matthews, will be performing in a fund-raising gig to benefit survivors of the recent North Bay fires. He will be playing alongside legendary heavy metal band Metallica, Oakland rapper G-Eazy and others. The concert is called Band Together Bay Area and will be held on Thurs 9th Nov at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.

All money raised by the event will go directly into an emergency relief fund established by Tipping Point Community, a nonprofit founded in 2005 to help those in need in the Bay Area. The new fund will go to cover food, housing, healthcare and rebuilding following the North Bay fires.

Tickets go on sale at www.bandtogetherbayarea.org and Ticketmaster. Tickets range from $49.50 to $199.50.


Sonoma Valley Fires report
Sonoma Valley Fires report

Firefighter Terry Sanders and son Isaac, 11, who lost their home in a wildfire, comfort each other i
Firefighter Terry Sanders and son Isaac, 11, who lost their home in a wildfire, comfort each other i

 Destruction in Coffey Park. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
Destruction in Coffey Park. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

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