Feb 21, 2021 Updated Feb 24, 2021
Since 2017 wildfires have created a crisis of epic proportions for Napa County. Just last year the Hennessey/LNU and Glass Fires cost Napa County $3.7 billion in losses. As Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” yet that is exactly what’s happening. We’re just five months away from the beginning of the next fire season and nothing has been accomplished to mitigate these wildfires except talk. There is no leadership anywhere on the horizon. Not the Governor, not CalFire, not the Board of Supervisors.
Before the fires: The condition of our forests was and is one of benign neglect. Since 1904 when the Forest Service started suppressing wildfires our forests have become clogged with too many trees and brush, which then weakens our forests from too much competition and makes them more susceptible to fire, disease and drought. The Fire: CalFire was overwhelmed with the Glass Fire and prioritized saving lives and not structures. This is not a criticism of CalFire, it is simply reality. The folks at Behrens, Ritchie Creek and Sherwin all evacuated Sunday night as they were told to do. However, because they weren’t allowed to return Monday, they lost their wineries. Because the hills west of St. Helena hadn’t burned since the 1870s there was a massive fuel load which made the Glass Fire burn very hot. This fire will have a devastating result on our landscape for decades to come.
Immediately after the fire, the forests had an eerily beautiful look, with off-white ash and blackened trees that reminded me of an artful pristine winter wonderland of snowy forests. But then the fire-damaged trees started to fall, along with damaged branches; the trees that we thought might survive we now know will not. The forest is again clogging up with large amounts of fuel and with all the standing dead trees it is creating a vertical ladder of fuel making for another dangerous fire season. What Now? 1) Ag Pass: We must have an updated Ag Pass that exists before an emergency or disaster and allows all that have the same access to property that firefighters, law enforcement and the press have. If we can’t reach our property and our homes, we can’t save them.
2) Signage: We need better signage to help our firefighters quickly find their destination. The Diamond Mountain Fire Safe Council has done an excellent job with their signage and demonstrates why FSCs are important. On Spring Mountain our signs have names and not numbers. Fire teams are sent to numbered addresses, not names. 3) Leadership: We desperately need leadership; without leadership, we will fail. Whether it’s CalFire, our Board of Supervisors or some new entity, that leadership is needed need now! What leadership exists comes from the Napa Communities Firewise Foundation (NCFF) that oversees the growing Fire Safe Council network.
With no funding stream and distantly managed by the CalFire bureaucracy, this organization is tackling a Herculean job that would challenge even the most skilled, professional administrators.
4) Angwin: Angwin is very likely to be the next Paradise. Napa County must repair and reopen Old Howell Mountain Road to provide a third escape route before this coming fire season. 5) Science: We must embrace the science that refutes much of the current conventional wisdom about forest management. A no-touch protected forest is a mismanaged forest that will result in overcrowding and greater susceptibility to drought, disease, fire. 6) Vineyards: Vineyards must be recognized for the environmental good they provide in protecting our lives and property from wildfires. If it were not for the vineyards checkerboarding the hilly western flank of St. Helena, the town may have gone the way of Paradise. Those vineyards created a barrier that delayed the fires that leaped across the Valley and then started burning east toward St. Helena’s Fir Hill, Sylvaner and Spring Street neighborhoods.
7) Prescribed burns: We must have community support for prescribed burns. Why is Sonoma County so far ahead of Napa County when it comes to fire and forest management?
8) The Gordian knot: We must get Napa County, Fish & Game, CalFire and the Air and Water Boards to cut the Gordian knot of overlapping and strangling regulations that only increase costs and delays to the point of stopping critical management of our forests.
9) Environmental Community: Yes, both global warming and the enormous fuel load are exacerbating our wildfires. We can’t reverse global warming within the next several years, but we can make significant changes to the fuel load, if we have the will to do it. We need the environmental community to join us, not oppose us. Please get out of the courthouse and join us in the forests to make a real difference. Doing nothing is not an option. Stuart Smith St. Helena