With the forest burning season coming, California is once again going through a period of exceptional drought. The conditions now are worse than a year ago, says Fire Department Chief Ben Nichols in the famous Napa Valley wine region. And then, in August and September 2020, California experienced the toughest fires in modern history.
“This spring we had roughly a thousand fires more throughout the state than in a normal year,” says Nichols. “The number of places where fire occurs is shooting up.”
President Biden has not escaped the nervousness about what is happening in the coming weeks either. He announced today that the California Fire Department will earn more. “We‘re after the facts and neglected the firefighting,” Biden said. Firefighters who work only in the drought season will be given a permanent appointment.
“Look that whole ridge is black, we saw the fire coming across the mountains, it glowed all night.” From the Sheldon Richards wine farm, you can see the valley above Napa town on three sides, an hour’s drive from San Francisco. Several vineyards around Richards went up in flames last year. “The fire came from three sides,” he points from his terrace. “We were very lucky.”
The fires have become part of life here, Richards says. In four of the past five summers, there were fires around his house and business. “After six years of drought, between 2009 and 2015, the arid branches had piled up in the forest. It became kindling. It only took a spark and the trees became giant torches of fire. The persistent drought and wind do the rest.”
Dozens of Richards neighbors lost their home, with all the memories in it. “That‘s the worst,” says the winegrower. “And on top of that, everyone loses their harvest, so do I.” he says. His vines are still there, but the smoke damage made the grapes of 2020 no longer usable. “The vineyards burned down also lost the harvest of the years before, which was still in the barrels.”
On the road with fire chief Ben Nichols it turns out that the winegrowers will be able to brace themselves for the coming weeks too. Normally, the season of drought and higher risk of burning lasts from June to September. “But in recent years it starts in April and continues until November, or sometimes even January,” says Nichols. His men have already been put to the test this spring, and the real work has yet to begin.
Climate scientists devote extreme drought, heat and wind to global warming. Fire chief Ben Nichols says this is a situation they don’t normally see:
According to Nichols, the fires of recent years have been so fierce and vast that they are almost impossible to combat. All that can be done is, in the short period when it is quiet, prepare the forests as best as possible for drought. The extra men Biden promises for the winter months would suit him well.
They then have to work to make the forests‘ healthier ‘, as Nichols calls it. The vegetation should be further apart, all dry branches and leaves should be removed. A fire can spread less easily. “Sometimes we even have to set fire pieces of forest in a controlled manner so that they are less likely to damage them in the catastrophic fires we‘ve been through.”
Winegrower Richards is already working on that too. “Our country is spotlessly clean, there’s no dead twig to be found,” he says as he walks towards the barn. There he pulls a large jerry can off a shelf, with straps on it to put it on your back. On top is a hose with a copper syringe. “This allows us to extinguish very focused first-time fires to save time before the fire brigade arrives.”
Richards has also installed water points all over his land and is widening the buffer between his house and the forest, hoping that the fire is less likely to jump over. “But in the end, we just have to accept this new reality,” he says relaxed. “These fires are part of life here now. All we can do is be well prepared when they come.”