In Wine Country, Agricultural Communities Measure Wildfire Tolls

By Rocco Pallin

This piece was originally published on the Food Tank website. Food Tank is a nonprofit organization focused on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters.

Unprecedented wildfires broke out in California’s Napa Valley early last month. One of the fires has been considered among the deadliest in the state’s history. Raging for more than a week and reaching 90-percent containment two weeks after ignition, the fires collectively destroyed a reported 8,400 structures and burned 220,000 acres in California wine country.

The long-term implications for agriculture are uncertain, but experts and government officials report that smoke-taint, job loss, and elevated housing prices for seasonal and other agricultural workers are among the immediate concerns.

With long-term drought having recently ended and the dry summer season coming to a close, Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott told the Los Angeles Times in an interview that vegetation was ready to burn. Strong winds, with gusts up to 70 miles per hour, are credited with downing power lines and accelerating the spread of the fires once they had begun.

As several vineyards sustained damage, the fires may have long-term effects on wine production. The Napa Valley, with 45,000 acres of land cultivated for grape production, represents 0.4 percent of the world’s wine production, according to the nonprofit trade association Napa Valley Vintners. It also employs 100,000 workers.

In addition to world-renowned grape production, which accounts for nearly all of the region’s crop worth each year, the Napa Valley and surrounding areas produce commercial vegetables, fruits, flowers, and livestock.

Renata Brillinger, Executive Director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network, reported on initial estimates from early media reports of agricultural damage in Sonoma County, where she lives. She notes that livestock—which values about US$245 million in Sonoma County—took an immediate hit from the fires, with ranchers “facing challenges with evacuating animals and in some cases losses of herds.”

Brillinger calls the area’s grasslands “well-adapted to cycles of fires like these,” noting that the productivity of rangeland could rebound this winter, the fires having burned away built-up thatch and allowing for new growth. She worries, however, of the potential of heavy rainfall to cause significant erosion, resulting in loss of nutrients in the soil and subsequent decline in grass production on grazing land.

The Napa Valley Vintners, as well as Brillinger, reported that 90 percent of Napa County’s grapes were picked and processed before the fire broke out. As of October 12, a report by The University of California Agricultural Issues Center (AIC) stated that fire had “mainly burned grass land and wooded area, especially on the hillsides with little vineyard acreage.” Vineyard land was somewhat protected because it is often at the floor of the valleys, researcher James Lapsley and Professor Daniel Sumner write in the report. Because of their relative safety, fire fighting crews even use vineyards strategically as “rally points.”

Lapsley and Sumner also expect that much of what remains of this year’s grape harvest will be picked, although at reduced value due to smoke taint, meaning that work opportunity for harvest workers will not disappear. However, seasonal workers have struggled while the fires burned and in the aftermath, with road closures making access to the vineyards difficult. Some of these workers were turned away from previously scheduled work during the fires because of dangerous conditions and limited accessibility of vineyards, resulting in a week or more without income.

“A bigger problem for farm workers is that the fires have exacerbated an already difficult and expensive housing situation,” Lapsley and Sumner explain, who are concerned that any rent increase in the area will cause difficulty for farmworkers.

One vineyard worker, Marisol Paniagua, told NPR that she questions whether her family will be able to afford staying in the area. Workers and grape growers alike worry that “the lack of jobs and the destruction of affordable homes due to the fires could force people to move elsewhere.”

The destruction of affordable housing and subsequent rising housing prices will be detrimental particularly for the immigrant labor force, which accounts for most of wine country’s workforce. It will also be costly to winemakers. California has suffered a shortage of agricultural workers for several years. Labor economist Philip Martin says the shortage of labor due to high—and escalating—living costs in the region will also slow rebuilding.

Federal assistance is available for workers who substantially lost work hours or lost jobs due to the fire. Undocumented workers, however, are not eligible to receive these Disaster Unemployment Assistance funds.

The fire also hit the emerging cannabis industry hard. Sonoma and Mendocino counties, with as many as 9,000 marijuana farms, have experienced “likely hundreds of millions of dollars in crop damage and loss,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported in the days after the fire erupted. Parts of Santa Rosa, referred to as “the epicenter of the modern legal pot economy in California” by chair of Sonoma County Growers Alliance Tawnie Logan, were leveled by fire.

Logan noted in an interview with the Chronicle that growers, who have difficulty getting crop and fire insurance, will be unable “to recover the millions in anticipated revenue they just lost.” Cannabis producers are not eligible for assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that may be available to some vineyards and winemakers.

Climate scientist Daniel Swain of University of California, Los Angeles, says a wet winter and “this summer’s record-breaking heat” contributed to the fires’ quick ignition and spread. The wet winter allowed for brush and grass to grow enormously, and the hot summer temperatures had a drying effect. Swain added that “we know there’s a long-term trend toward warmer and hotter summers.”

This year’s wildfires to date have burned about 90 percent as much acreage as the record acreage burned in 2015 across the U.S., and the fires have already broken a record for government spending on wildfire fighting. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue says, “Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent—or maybe even more.” Perdue emphasized that limited funding requires that the Forest Service borrow money from other programs, like forest maintenance and fire prevention programs, to use for fire suppression, making it difficult to “get ahead of the curve on fighting fires.”

This piece was originally published on the Food Tank website. Food Tank is a nonprofit organization focused on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters.

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