It’s no surprise that the notion of preparedness and designing defensible spaces has made its way into the mainstream vernacular for all members of our community. Since 2017, 60% of the landcover in Napa County has been touched by fire. Across California, over 4.3 million acres of land burned in 2020 alone.
Wildfires may have become the new normal in California, but as a community we can work together to be more resilient and better prepared. To this end, creating fire-ready vineyards and landscapes is essential.
In the aftermath of the 2020 Glass Fire, which burned large swaths of the Viader family’s Howell Mountain estate vineyard, as well as 30,000 surrounding trees, proprietor Delia Viader and her son, grape grower and winemaker, Alan Viader, are rebuilding their estate property through a new lens.
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They are preparing for the next fire threat by creating a defensible space that protects their vines and structures and, in circumstances as serious as the Glass Fire, gives firefighters a chance to fend off impending flames safely. And they want to help their wine country neighbors to do the same.
On April 28, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, in partnership with the Napa Valley Vintners and Napa Community Firewise Foundation, are hosting a Fire Resources Fair to allow members of the industry and community to learn about fire preparedness.
The fair will be held outdoors at the Napa Valley College Upper Valley Campus, where attendees can interact with organizations and businesses looking to support the community in fire recovery and prevention. This event is free. To attend, register on the Grape Growers website, napagrowers.org.
A winemaker becomes a firefighter
In addition to his role as winemaker at Viader, Alan Viader also moonlights as a member of the Napa County Sheriff’s volunteer search and rescue team, as well as the Deer Park volunteer fire department. He graduated from the CalFire fire academy in 2021.
“When the Glass fire in 2020 hit, it hit my mom’s home and our family property, and I felt helpless because I couldn't do anything. I was turned away at the roadblocks," Viader said. "I was communicating with my friend on the Deer Park fire department all night, sharing gate codes and mapping property access points to help them cut hand lines.
"I wanted to be there, and I couldn't. I wasn't trained and that frustrated me. I told myself that I would never be in that helpless position again, so I joined the CalFire volunteer academy, and now after training, I can help my community, and family, with whatever arises.”
For this month’s Napa Valley Grapegrowers’ report, Viader provided advice on how the community can prepare for wildfire.
Know your area
"We call it Situation Awareness in the fire service, but it applies to everybody." Viader said. "Know the risks in your immediate area, know your best escape routes, and be aware of what is happening around you at all times. If you're not already signed up for Nixle, do it. There are apps and Facebook pages that you can join and stay up to date as well.
"A great app that I like to use is Watch Duty to alert me of any fires in the valley," Viader said. "Invest in a HAM radio, get licensed and learn how to use it. They are so valuable during an emergency and sometimes the only way to listen in and know what's going on. In 2017, when the cell phone towers went down in the fires, that is all I had to listen in and communicate."
Be ready to go in an emergency
"Have your car always filled with plenty of gas.," Viader said. "I'm never below a half tank. Never.
"Don't be that person that risks the lives of the first responders because they now need to rescue you when you had the chance to evacuate early. Have the important things ready to go and know when to leave. When a fire is already burning down onto your property, it is too late. I've seen homes burn in a matter of minutes. It's faster than you expect and not a good situation to find yourself in. Play out the evacuation route in your head. If there is no power, do you know how to open the garage door? Your gate? Work through the details ahead of time when you're calm and have time to arrange plans.
"This is so important," Viader said. "It's not going to work if only nine out of 10 people on the block do it. That one person is going to risk the life and safety of the entire neighborhood. Clean up your property, remove piles of junk and debris. Limb your trees and thin out the canopies.
"Spacing between trees is also important," he added. Most forests are too dense and its unhealthy, so open things up and allow the trees to thrive. If you have dense forests around your home, create a shaded fuel-break. You should have at least 100 feet of clean and tidy area around every structure; 150-feet if you have slopes.
"As you move closer to the structure itself, have things even cleaner and more open. Look around and get rid of the oily, flammable plants around your garden. That 5–10-foot area around the structure is critical. Take away that old rosemary bush that you planted 20 years ago that's growing right up against your front door. If you don't have the fuel, the fire won't find its way to your front door.
"Another term we use in the fire service are 'ladder fuels." Ladder fuels refer to brush and untrimmed trees that are low to the ground, allowing fire to work its way up through the brush, into the low-hanging branches, then up the ladder into the trees, which then spreads from tree to tree, or something called a 'crown fire.'
Viader added, "Defensible space is not only to protect your own property though, but it also helps give the first responders arriving on your property some extra time to assess your property and develop a plan on how they are going to defend it.
"Another key thing to remember, is that wildfires don't always start from another property. Sometimes a structure fire that started in the kitchen can spread to the surrounding landscapes and take out the entire neighborhood. So, it's helpful in those situations as well to have adequate defensible space.
"Tip: choose fire-resistant landscaping. I use a lot of natural stone and gravel for our landscaping. It's safe, looks more natural and doesn't require irrigation. And rocks that I pulled out of the vineyard are free. This type of hardscape proved itself to us by saving my mom's home, and our winery."
Provide easy access to your property
"Starting with your address number, make sure its large and reflective," Viader said. "If first responders can't find your address, they waste precious time. Make access easy and clear. Remember, most emergencies happen at night and in less-than-ideal situations. Make things as obvious and clear as possible.
Viader also suggested, "Invite the local fire station to your property so they can get familiar with your property. Have them point out anything that is of concern to them and their safety. If you have a large, complex property with multiple driveways and residences, have a map with available water resources and any access roads and gates. The more information they know about your property the better. Do they have room to turn around on your property? If I'm driving a fire engine and I don't know whether there is a turnaround point down that long narrow driveway, I'll think twice about going down there.
Water connections are also important
Viader said, "If you do have water tanks or swimming pool water, make sure the connections are something a fire engine can connect to. All fire engines in the valley can connect to a 2.5-inch hook-up. But it's a specific fire department hose thread and size, so don't expect your system to automatically come setup that way. You'll need to have those 2.5-inch connection points added or provide adaptors for quick and easy access.
He added, “It’s important we work together to protect the Napa Valley for our future generations. With healthy, maintained forests, firefighters have a better and safer chance to fight wildfire, and the forest has a better chance to survive. To change fire behavior, we need to change the fuels. Defensible space is not just a suggestion, it's the smart thing to do when you live among the forest.”
Alan Viader is a a grape grower and winemaker at Viader Vineyards and Winery and volunteer firefighter. Caroline Keller is a staff member of Napa Valley Grapegrowers.