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It Takes a Village: Creating Fire Resiliency in Napa County, California

Blog post by Tracy Katelman for Napa Firewise

July 3, 2024

"Mention of Napa Valley often evokes thoughts of world-class wine and beautiful countryside. Those fortunate enough to have visited may get lost in daydreams of verdant valleys surrounded by hillsides of oak woodlands and dense forests. For those in the fire world, “Napa” also carries memories of catastrophic fires of a magnitude that overwhelmed everyone from first responders to area residents.

From Devastation to Action: Napa After the Fires

Since the 2017 “Wine Country” fires – the Nuns and Atlas fires, along with the Tubbs fire that originated in Napa County’s city of Calistoga and burned into downtown Santa Rosa – more than 60% of Napa County experienced large-scale wildfire in about five years. In addition to the lives lost and the destruction of homes, properties, and ecosystems, these fires generated immense amounts of smoke that had significant, lasting effects on the economy, largely in the form of smoke-tainted grapes. As the losses to this internationally acclaimed agricultural region and tourist destination mounted, Napa residents organized to counter the ongoing threats.

Building a Fire Safe Napa: The Napa County CWPP and Napa Firewise

Leaders from the wine industry and conservation world came together with local and state fire agencies; local, state, and national electeds; and the non-profit organization The Napa Communities Firewise Foundation, aka Napa Firewise, to strategize how to better prepare for future fires. They began with a CAL FIRE grant to create the first Napa County CWPP (Community Wildfire Protection Plan) in 2019. Meanwhile, another 40% of the county burned in 2020 during the middle of the CWPP risk-assessment process.

Building a Track Record: Napa Firewise Secures Funding

Founded in 2004 by senior fire professionals and community leaders, Napa Firewise functioned for 17 years as an all-volunteer organization until hiring its first paid staff in 2021. Since 2020, it has raised over $28 million (M) in grants, (largely from State funding via CAL FIRE, the CA Fire Safe Council, and private funders such as PG&E), received another $26M in County of Napa direct support, and $1.5M of federal funding through Congressionally Designated Spending on behalf of the late Senator Feinstein. It also supported the County to receive $1.8M in a new FEMA PDM grant as well as the $50M BRIC grant (see more below).

With these funds and working closely with the Napa County Fire Department and CAL FIRE, over 215 unique community hazardous fuel reduction projects totaling nearly 3,000 acres with 200+ miles of roadside treatments along critical evacuation routes and strategic fuel breaks have been completed since 2020. An additional 100 miles of county roadside projects, and another 900 acres of fuel breaks are already funded and in the project queue. In 2023, Napa Firewise launched its Project Dashboard that allows residents to view all projects by year, Fire Safe Council (FSC), funding source, and/or treatment type. Users can also see what projects are in progress, planned, and proposed – all in one place. Finally, it launched and supported 22 local Fire Safe Councils (FSCs).

Public-Private Partnership: Napa County Steps Up

The County of Napa invested significantly in Napa Firewise, beginning with annual grants of $100,000 for many years. Then, with the signing of the CWPP and in cooperation with State Senator Bill Dodd, the County funded Napa Firewise with more than $6 million per year since 2020 to implement the CWPP via the 5-Year Fuel Reduction Plan as well as to build Napa Firewise’ organizational capacity. The two entities collaborated in 2023 to win Napa County a FEMA BRIC grant for $50M for both hazardous fuel reduction and a countywide defensible space and ignition-resistant construction cost-share program.

A Smart Investment: Napa Valley Vintners Prioritize Wildfire Risk Reduction

Later in 2023, the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) — a non-profit trade association with 550+ members — made an historic investment of $2.1 million to support wildfire resiliency, largely to Napa Firewise and the Napa County Resource Conservation District (RCD). The two groups are cooperating to treat and permanently open the many fire roads or “dozer lines” created during previous fires. The $1.05 million Phase 1 grant to Napa Firewise funded site-specific designs and treatments for fire road fuel breaks and habitat enhancements to maximize wildfire resilience, community safety, and ecological health. In the first year 30 projects were completed totaling 74 miles of fire and fuel breaks."

Pritchard Hill to Atlas Peak Road

Circle Oaks

Efficiency and Innovation: Stretching Every Dollar

"This efficient and inspiring NVV project success stemmed from several factors. First, local expertise and excellent working relationships between Napa Firewise, residents, and fire agencies allowed for prioritizing strategically critical areas. This empowered all partners, especially local landowners, to act quickly and begin treatments. Second, private funds donated to a private organization for work on private lands meant that compliance analysis didn’t slow down the work. Local partners could move ahead using existing best practices to monitor erosion control and ensure local environmental protections. In several instances, existing California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Notice of Exemptions (NOE) were filed with the County. Finally, funding from a 2021 CAL FIRE grant facilitated the purchase of a shared D1 bulldozer through a cooperative agreement between Napa Firewise, CAL FIRE Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit (LNU), and the Pacific Union College. The dozer’s availability for the NVV project when not needed by firefighters reduced project costs significantly, as only operator time, fuel, and supplies were the treatment expenses.

Together with the permitting savings, these cost savings allowed every dollar to stretch to treat more miles of strategic fuel breaks and ultimately to implement stronger hazardous fuel reduction along the sides of treated fire roads (aka dozer lines). Ongoing vegetation management along these roads includes reducing fuels 20’ out from each side of the cleared line and removing overhead limbs up to 15’ (as possible) for fire engine access.

Recognizing the project’s efficiency, NVV donated another $300,000 to Napa Firewise to purchase a John Deere 650 dozer in March 2024. This equipment further builds local capacity via a new fee-for-service program to support residents with hazardous fuel reduction. The new program generates discretional funding – often difficult to raise for non-profit organizations – to further support community wildfire resilience in Napa County."

Enhanced Fire Safe Council Engagement and Collaboration with First Responders

"This critical investment also enhanced local Fire Safe Council (FSC) engagement. Priorities for improved dozer containment lines are being identified when setting up new Fire Safe Councils, allowing rapid project delivery and implementation. This helps build local credibility for new FSCs. Continuing collaboration with first responders allows all partners to evaluate what new or existing fire breaks will be most impactful to communities. Finally, water access was improved for first responders at Lake Berryessa, Berryessa Highlands, Berryessa Pines, and Lake Curry.

This dozer line work has improved fire protection and community fire safety around many rural WUI neighborhoods, together protecting over 750 structures. It also supported ongoing work around the Napa Veterans Home and Hospital which houses over 1,000 aged and/or disabled veterans and is an alternative site for the California State Capitol.

Restoring the Landscape and Native Ecosystems: A Long-Term Vision for Fire Resiliency

Long-term fire resiliency is being initiated where these projects cross ridgetops and other more historically open areas. In the last century Douglas fir encroached upon most of the ridges around Napa, Sonoma, and other nearby northern California counties as natural fire was suppressed or eliminated as an ecosystem process and concurrently private homes filled the hillsides. The forested slopes here that many now consider “natural” were formerly maintained with cultural fire since time immemorial, resulting in a rich grassland and oak savannah ecotype, one that had lower flame lengths and more manageable fire behavior than the current dense, Douglas fir-choked slopes. In cooperation with the Napa County RCD, treatments are designed to be followed with restoration of native grasslands and oak woodlands, using prescribed fire and planting of native species to ensure long-term fire and climate resilience.

Napa’s Cohesive Strategy Model for Success   

Napa’s collective long-term strategy is to use grant funding (so far mostly County and State funding, with long-term tax-based funding and other strategies in development) to treat these legacy hazardous fuel issues strategically around the county, and then empower local residents to maintain treatments wherever possible. The Napa Valley Vintners investment is a critical step in this process.

The collaboration in Napa County is a shining example of the Cohesive Strategy in action. Safe and effective fire response is improved with the reopening of strategic fire breaks, access to critical water sources, and the establishment of vital pre-fire communications between fire personnel, residents, and local Fire Safe Councils. Community fire adaptation is supported with local non-profit and neighborhood participation and leadership, building the capacity and leadership of local Fire Safe Councils, and facilitating direct protection for local structures. Finally, the private investment on behalf of the Napa wine industry is restoring landscape resiliency by reopening ridgetop fire breaks, the first step toward restoring ridgetop grasslands and oak woodlands to improve long-term fire behavior throughout Napa County.

For more information, please contact Napa Firewise:"


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