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Vineyards may have kept wine country fire from getting worse

Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Christian Palmaz used hoes, shovels and rakes to keep flames from his family's 19th-century vineyard estate home on the flanks of Mount St. George in eastern Napa County.

But he didn't have to worry about his vines. They're green, very much alive, and a stark contrast to more than 500 acres of oak, manzanita and grassland charred by the Atlas fire as it tore across Palmaz's property.

As the Napa and Sonoma valleys struggle through days of a raging firestorm that has already claimed at least 28 lives, many vineyards in the nearly 100,000-acre burn areas appear to be emerging largely unscathed.

The vineyards stand in stark contrast to tens of thousands of acres of oak wildlands, as well as entire residential neighborhoods, that have been scorched.

For all the frightening images of flames consuming winery buildings and looming over the background of the region's postcard-perfect vineyards, the wine country blazes so far appear to be mainly an urban catastrophe.

Thirteen people were killed in and around the city of Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, where the Tubbs fire consumed more than 1,500 suburban tract homes as well as hotels, restaurants and other facilities that have grown around the region's wine industry, which adds $57 billion to the state's economy.

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The toll from those losses is expected to be enormous. But so far, only a handful of winery buildings have been destroyed, while a scattering of others have suffered partial damage, according to early assessments.

"Vineyards save lives," said Jennifer Putnam, executive director of Napa Valley Grapegrowers, who has a college degree in forestry. "They saved property and lives in Napa County. It's as clear as it can be."

Even at Napa's Signorello Estate, where the tasting room burned to the ground Sunday night, 40 acres of decades-old vines survived, owner Ray Signorello Jr. said Thursday.

"The vines appear to be almost 100 percent intact," he said. "The fire just came up to the edge of the vineyard and stopped."


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