Napa's Nights of Fire on the Mountain
© Stu Smith | The fire hit suddenly, giving Smith-Madrone very little time to react.
Smith-Madrone's Stu Smith tells W. Blake Gray about his week-long battle to save his winery from the Napa fires.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Tuesday, 20-Oct-2020 There are thousands of stories to tell from the Glass Fire that devastated northern Napa Valley. Here is just one: the story of Stu Smith, co-owner of Smith-Madrone Vineyards on Spring Mountain. I'll flash forward to the ending to tell you that unlike some of his neighbors, Smith did not lose his winery. He was fortunate: at least a dozen wineries on Spring Mountain lost buildings. It was across the valley from where the fire started, but it ended up being perhaps the hardest hit. Related stories:Napa's Fire Response Overwhelmed and UnderfundedGet Well Soon, Napa ValleyWine Country Starts Picking Up the PiecesBut Smith did spend a difficult seven nights at the winery though it was under evacuation order, fighting the fire as best he could with the help of his neighbors, his sons Sam and Tom, his brother Charlie, and his partner Julie Ann. Stu and I talked twice, for more than two hours. Rather than insert myself in the story, I'm just going to run an edited transcript of his words. It should give you an idea of what it's like when a wildfire rages out of control all around you. Stu Smith's story Of the eight or nine days that were kind of critical up there, I was up there for seven of them. The first night was Sunday night. I'd been there all day Sunday because of crush. That was the beginning of the fire on the other side of the valley. In the afternoon, I started feeling the tug that I should be prepping for this even though I didn't see any way possible for the fire to get to us. I started moving all of our equipment into the vineyard. I moved all the wooden pallets into the vineyard. I prepped for the fire coming up the Mill Creek watershed. Before I left, I put sprinklers on the little grassy bank behind the barn and left them on for the evening. Facing the fireball At the end of the day we all went home. It was after 7; I remember listening to 60 Minutes on the radio on the way down. I may have had dinner; I don't remember. About 8pm I got a call from a friend on the west side of Silverado Trail and he said: "Stu, your place is on fire." I said: "It can't be, I was just there." He said: "It's a fireball, I can see it, it's huge." I called Charlie and Sam and hauled ass back up there. Sam got through, but Charlie was stopped by deputies at the bottom of Spring Mountain Road. When I came up I saw no fire on Spring Mountain Road. Sam came through about 20 minutes later. You know where those two redwood trees are close together? Those two redwood trees and that whole area was on fire. Sam and I were able to get up there just in time. When we got back up, I immediately shut off the sprinklers. We had to conserve water because PG&E had cut off our power. Sam and I immediately started filling containers: bins, buckets, anything that would hold water. We set them up on the stairs of the winery going all the way to the roof. We had them all around in case of embers. That's what gets most people is the embers. We're lucky that we have no gutters. With the Tubbs Fire [in 2017], what apparently sparked so many buildings to burn was that the gutters were full of leaves that were dry as dust and ready to burn. Sam and I tried to sleep from maybe 11 pm. But the Nixles [emergency phone alerts] were going off every 10 minutes. The emergency screeches [from fire alarms] seemed to be going off every 15 or 20 minutes. Later in the evening we started getting these huge booms all around us. Propane tanks were exploding. They have pressure releases, they don't blow up like a bomb, but it sounds like it. I got up about 1:30 a.m. and started loading up the Suburban with all our business records. Monday morning, around 3:30-4 in the morning, I told my neighbor Andy Schweiger that there was nothing going on but a little red glow down by the highway. I was looking down into Bothe Napa [Valley] State Park. It was quiet. You look at the canyon and it was dark, and you'd just see a little speck, like a match. Then all of a sudden fire was blowing up the canyon. You could start feeling the heat being bounced off the north face of the canyon. It gave me second thoughts about being up there. © Stu Smith | The vineyards acted as a firebreak, protecting the buildings and equipment at the center. The whole northern face of the Ritchie Creek watershed was just exploding in huge flames. This is a really steep slope. Anything burnable just went off like a Roman candle. There would just be a little spark, no bigger than a match, a few hundred yards away. You turn your head away and then, boom, all of sudden that was bigger and bigger and just exploding in flames. Then it blew another 300 yards to the west. It would double and then double and then double again as you were standing there watching it. We're on the south end of the Ritchie Creek watershed. We could start feeling the heat. It was humbling. What was also fairly terrifying is that there were four separate fires coming at us. We heard that there was a fire in Bothe-Napa State Park. There was a fire coming out of Brasswood Estate. Also, west of us by several miles, there was reported to be a fire on Tarwater Road. Two weeks before, during the Hennessy Fire, I made sure we had a road between Stony Hill and Smith-Madrone. I made sure that stayed open. That's a road that goes back to the 1880s. It's a small 4WD dirt road. We had a joint commitment after the '17 fire to keep that road open in case we needed to escape. We got up early and Sam and I went down to the springs, which is where our wellhead is. PG&E had already shut off the power. That was extremely discouraging. During the '17 fire we had power. And power means water, and water means you can do things. Without water, you're in a different category. Somewhere about mid-morning on Monday, we knew the fire would cross the canyon. We were down at the springs when the fire started coming up. It wasn't howling, like the night before, We really had put a good effort into preparing. I'd spent the last three years cutting out brush. We said, maybe it's time to get out of here. We left, and started preparing the rest of the property. Our next battle was at the water tanks. We had 10,000 gallons of water up there. I had spent the last several years cutting down trees and burning around the tanks, to protect the tanks. But it's never enough. With three guys from Barnett [Vineyards], we all met by our fence line. There was a big battle to fight [the fire]. We were just cutting down more trees, trying to stop the fire from going forward. Working with chainsaws in the middle of the night. It was kind of hairy. That was the only place where we were in combat with the fire. And it was combat. At the same time [the fire] was up at the water tanks, it was also at our vineyard. Our vineyard runs east-west, basically. The fire was coming up out of Bothe and it started challenging our north perimeter. Vineyards are to wildfires as kryptonite is to Superman. Everywhere it challenged our vineyards, the fire was stopped. Eventually the fire worked around our vineyard and started going south. It crept along our south fenceline toward our barn. I'd done even more work there. Sting in the tale On Tuesday morning Julie Ann and Charlie were able to get through the blockade at the bottom because they had ag passes. Julie Ann went to the county [agriculture] office and got them. I drove them all around. I took them to the springs. There must have been a bubble around this area because nothing burned. Julie Ann brought up a bunch of food and drinks and ice. I'm sitting there munching on a sandwich and there was a yellow jacket also trying to eat my sandwich. It stung me on the tongue. A decade or more ago, Charlie was drinking a soda pop during harvest and there was a yellow jacket in it, and as he drank it, it stung him on the tongue. His tongue started swelling up and he went to the emergency room. They gave him Benadryl and it got better. When I did it and the yellow jacket stung me in the tongue, we knew it wasn't as dangerous as people think, as long as we have Benadryl. But we didn't have any at the top so Julie Ann went down to get it. But when she got back to Spring Mountain Road, then they said, no, it's now a hard closure, we're not even letting people up with ag passes. So she went to the St Helena Fire Department and they said, we know Stu, we'll bring it up. I was working on some equipment and up drives this beautiful St Helena fire engine followed by an EMT ambulance. I said, through my swollen tongue, all I need is some Benadryl. They looked at it and said, oh my god, that's swollen. But I took the Benadryl and it was fine. CalFire showed up on Wednesday night and lit a backfire. They did a backfire from our barn up our road over to Marvin Atchley's vineyard. They were extremely pleased with what they had done. It was a classic backfire and they were thrilled that it worked so well. It's what stopped the fires from coming up into Mill Creek. After that night, it was really all over but the shouting. We still had fires. I put out a fire two nights ago. There are still hotspots inside the perimeter: a root, a stump, that can flare up. © Stu Smith | Smith said he was exhausted by the end of his vigil, sleeping in his boots. After that first night, from Tuesday night on, instead of hearing propane tanks going off, you hear trees crash from the forest. It's not just one tree. You're just standing around and all the sudden you hear a huge tree just crash. There was a madrone limb that Charlie estimated was 65 feet long and had fallen 50 feet and just shattered. That happened all day, all night. You're trying to sleep and you hear these crashes. We had no power, and no water. It's shovels that do the work, it's not the water. I was down in Brown's auto store at the end of this and my friend owns it, he's a volunteer firefighter, and I said, you know Dan, I didn't eat. He said, yeah, you don't. You just drink. I lost six or seven pounds. I was filthy. Not only that, I stunk to high heaven. When you're in fires, and in dirt, jeans and shirts are not the appropriate clothes. CalFire has the appropriate clothes but we didn't. I didn't have a sleeping bag. I just laid outside. It was warm. We didn't have blankets. It was warm enough that you just slept on the ground in your boots. I hate sleeping in boots, but you gotta, because you don't know what's going to happen. The forest is something to behold. It looks like snow, because the forest floor is all ash white, and the trees are all black. It reminds you of winter snow. It was so hot that it just vaporized all the little stuff on the ground. Before you couldn't see 25 yards into the forest. Now you can see 100 yards into the forest. I am now of the belief that our Native Americans and aborigines in Australia, they've been dealing with this for thousands of years. They know more about this. Our European arrogance, colonialization, is really getting in the way of properly dealing with the forest. We should be listening to aboriginals about how they managed the land. There was an article that said the last fire that went through the mountains west of St Helena was 1870. This was a fire that was long overdue. We all knew that we were vulnerable. To successfully have your house or your winery survive, you have to be prepared ahead of time. How you define that preparedness is important. At the same time, you have to embrace a second concept. Only you are responsible for your property. Nobody else. When you know that CalFire isn't going to be the cavalry, and you're responsible entirely for the protection of your property, you look at trees and bushes a different way. You have to ask, if I leave that tree will it cost me my home? You have to look at these things ruthlessly because fire is a ruthless enemy. Another thing that's important is you've got to have an Alamo, a shelter that's impenetrable by fire. For us, it's the middle of the vineyard. We're hundreds of yards from any forest. We're a non-till vineyard. But sometimes vineyards can burn, so I cultivated every other row around the barn and the winery. Late Sunday evening I moved everything into the vineyard. That is our Alamo. There's no fuel in the middle of the vineyard. A few vines will burn that are right next to the forest. But the center of vineyards are safe. On Monday night when I got a chance, Sam and I both took off to see how our neighbors were doing. Sherwin [Family Vineyards] was not on fire. Behrens [Family Winery] had lost some outbuilding structures but their main winery was untouched. We still had AT&T cell service, which we eventually lost. I told the fire department that if they could get an engine up to Behrens they might be able to save it. All they needed was one engine. The St Helena Fire Department said they were all out. All three wineries burned because the road was closed to property owners. That's got to change. Property owners have to have an absolute right to their property. If we have to sign liability waivers ahead of time that's fine. From about Tuesday night, everybody left their gates wide open. I would sleep on the south side of the barn and CalFire, if they were there, would sleep on the north side of the barn. These guys would be standing up, having their breakfast. I started putting chairs out. I said you guys are working hard, you should have chairs. It's amazing how the fire raced through the creeks in the valley. When I saw that bright red spot on Monday morning, that was probably Castello di Amorosa. It probably got down in the creeks and that's how it spread across the valley. Most of the creeks are dry this time of year, and all that flotsam and jetsam is sitting in the creekbed, as dry as can be. It even moved through the Napa River; that may be how it got across the valley floor so quickly. Environmentalists do not want to recognize that an unmanaged forest is mismanaged by definition. It reduces the amount of water that goes into creeks and rivers. We just have to get past this notion that an untouched forest is a natural forest. The native Americans burned the forest every eight to 10 years. We have to listen to them. In forest management, we have to have prescribed burns. We cannot go through this Gordian knot of regulations. We've got an enormous job now. We have over 100 wooden fenceposts we have to replace. We have hundreds of feet of deer fence to fix. We're talking 20 work days for two or three people. That's a month's worth of work, if it all goes well. Hopefully we won't have to deal with this for a number of years in the future. To join the conversation, comment on our social media channels.