Wildfire on Fire
September 19, 2015 I was on the Calistoga Fairgrounds. I had jotted that date down in my calendar getting up that morning and driving the hour and fifteen minutes from Emery Cove north to this location intending to investigate this northernmost corner of Napa County. I had come to look over the historic racetrack as I pieced the plot to my next novel together.
The hotshot had fought too hard this season, “You give fire a crack, especially with a five year drought on and she’ll make it a moody unpredictable conflagration every time.” From Women of the Oak Savannahs
National championship motorcycle races were scheduled then cancelled. Instead the fairground became a base for the evacuees of the Lake County Fire burning out of control east of the famed wine growing region.
I met activists and volunteers on fairgrounds that day. I had lunch downtown talking to people arriving to pickup friends, family and their pets to take them home until the fires were put out.
“I pray to god I’m to hell and gone,” another hot shot said, “when that road reopens, and the homeowners are allowed back in. I don’t know if there’s a man among us who has the stomach to witness that much grief.”
This wasn’t the first big fire, but it was the worst of them. Unstoppable wildfire in late summer to early fall have become too frequent. California is a little dryer, a little hotter, and this combination combines with high winds and low humidity to make for near perfect conditions for fire.
Satellite View of the Glass Fire
With the economic recovery after the global financial crisis of 2009 came a run up in real estate prices along with an increased demand for markets seeking Napa Valley wines. Attending a Napa County Planning Commission meeting was to witness a frenzied bubble of speculators rushing to buy a piece of Napa County paradise.
“I hope we never do a show like this ever again.” Jo said. “One is enough, two is more heartbreak than a girl ought to have to bear.”
In the last ten years with most of the valley built-out attention turned to the hills surrounding Napa Valley. One developer then another obtained a permit to build. Tens upon tens of thousands of trees were removed, thousands of acres of vines were planted, homes were built, wells punched, and tasting rooms were opened.
All the while each year there were more and ever more dangerous wildfires in the region. Instead of halting further development, consolidating infrastructure, finding solutions to the traffic choked highways, the pressure to keep approving new developments and keep the expansion on track was the unstoppable force.
“What if the whole world gets so hot that there’s nowhere to run? What are we going to do then?”
“Can’t let that happen.”
Wildfire is forcing Napa County to change its plans. Global climate change is forcing the region to reconsider how to even coexist with the now deadly serious autumn fire season. A small army of specialized scientists already have the answers to questions the planning commissioners don’t want to hear. Hazard insurance for homeowners is about to disrupt the real estate market. The cost of protecting hillside homes is spiking. Water scarcity, salmons fish runs going extinct and a spike in childhood cancer rates plague the once pristine region.
Locals try to keep their chins up but confidence has dipped, knowing at any moment in any future autumn that orders to evacuate their home because of another wildfire has to be planned for. Having to run for your life with what you can grab before a wall of flames ingulfs your home isn’t workable.
Solving this crisis will inevitably turn to working with the international effort to reverse climate change. The singular focus of increasing vineyards to take what precious little water there is here and ship it in the form of wine to over there is no longer viable. Like the pandemic the wildfires are forcing us to reconsider how we may move forward. This is what we confront now. How to preserve and protect our people and world.
Jo bent over and untangled her long hair with her fingers. “I saw that look, the one you’re talking about. After the show, then it hits them all over again, everything they had in this world has gone up in smoke, gone like that, and now? How do you pick up the pieces when there are no pieces left to pick up?”