In Sonoma Valley, fire and ash make their way into almost every conversation.
For 10 days in October 2017, raining embers ravaged California’s Wine Country. Fueled by 70-mph winds, the Nuns and Tubbs fires in Sonoma Valley barreled out of control toward the communities of Santa Rosa, Glen Ellen, Kenwood and Sonoma. When the fires were finally contained, 25 people and countless pets, native animals and livestock had died. Entire neighborhoods were swallowed by fire. Many workers and owners of vineyards, including the Bundschu family of Sonoma Valley’s oldest winery, would not know for days whether their livelihood survived.
Outside the valley, the news media reported that the oldest commercial wine region in the state was now a memory. No more award-winning chardonnay or zinfandel. No longer would the agritourism industry employ one in 10 residents. Nothing was left for the 7 million annual travelers to experience Sonoma Valley’s diverse, dependable and prolific grapes.
Yet it turned out that vineyards are a natural fire break. Throughout the valley, few vines actually burned because constant watering and attention made the earth too inhospitable for fire. And as most grapes that autumn had already been harvested, the smoke that hung over the valley for weeks after the fires caused minimal harm. Sonoma Valley’s wines remain untainted and dependably delicious.
But the collective trauma changed valley residents; many have gained what Rebecca Solnit, the author of “A Paradise Built in Hell,” calls “a door back into paradise, a realm in which we are who we hope to be … our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.” Sonoma Valley rebounded thanks to the emergency responders — some from as far away as Australia — but also because of its residents. In the months that followed, locals worked together to rebuild and better protect their landscapes from the fire-filled future that science predicts will be their norm.
Eighteen months after the fire, I visited Sonoma as part of my research for a book on traveling in the era of climate change. I’ve learned that we can help communities recover by simply showing up, offering our support in this tumultuous world.
‘Making Our Way Back’
From the valley floor, it’s hard to tell that nearly 100,000 acres of this region burned less than two years ago. At one point, fire surrounded the valley on four sides, with flames up to 100 feet high.
At the same time, fires also raged through Napa, Mendocino and Solano counties, killing 15 more people and becoming the most damaging fire year in California history (a statistic that would be broken the next autumn by the Camp Fire). These neighboring fires burned more than 1,200 structures and more than 80,000 acres, sending thick, smoky air to the Central California coast for days.
What saved people in Sonoma during the fires was neighbors knocking on doors. What saved them afterward was being forward-thinking about how to prepare for living on a hotter planet.
When recovery efforts began, the National Guard was posted around the communities and emergency vehicles lined the roads. Residents and construction workers occupied every available hotel room. Few limos shuttled prosecco fans between wineries. On any given day, trucks loaded with prefab houses maneuvered tight wine country roads.
“Mother Nature marches forward, so do our lives,” said Rachel Hundley, the former Sonoma mayor, over a cappuccino at the popular Basque Cafe located in the center of town.
We sat by the Sonoma Square earlier this year, watching a young girl pedal through a shower of cherry blossoms. The bakery workers, eager to close, handed out the unsold baguettes to passersby.
The fires “motivated residents to take care of each other and improve the preparedness of properties in fire-prone areas,” Hundley said.
The Many Uses of Fire
The first people in this valley used fires to tend to their wild lands, clearing pastures for animals to graze and making sunlight for new food sources to flourish. I learned this all on a hike through burned terrain organized by the Audubon Canyon Reserve’s Jared Childress.
As a prescribed fire specialist, Childress fights fire with fire, intentionally scorching dry brush in Northern California to create safer environments for people. Hikes like these aim to educate visitors and residents alike about the importance of what he does.
We walked through the burned pygmy redwood forest of Bouverie Preserve, passing charred manzanitas reaching up a hillside. Childress pointed out a pileated woodpecker knocking on a burned Douglas fir, a tree considered the bully of the forest because it eliminates the diversity of plant life. Newly sprouted lilies, redwood orchids and deer grass angled toward the sun.
Calling my gaze to blue wildflowers and tree sprouts that flourished only after burns, Childress explained how the Nuns Fire barreled through this reserve, and at the same time, the Tubbs blaze, which carved a nearly identical footprint as the 1964 Hanly Fire, threatened from the north.
“The biggest difference between the Hanly Fire and this one was almost no one lived out there in 1964,” he said, acknowledging how the valley’s booming wine industry sparked population growth, placing more people in fire’s pathways.
In November, Childress helped create the Good Fire Alliance, a nonprofit group of local organizations and private landowners who are working together to protect fire-prone areas with prescribed burns (or “good fire”), livestock grazing and other actions.
Like Water, Fire Takes the Path of Least Resistance
When the blaze appeared over Sugarloaf Ridge, Katie Bundschu ran to the gates of Gundlach Bundschu’s grounds to meet her family. In her hands she carried the best bottle she could find in her grandmother’s wine cellar, a 1982 Chateau Petrus. Together, the family saluted their 161-year-old legacy while they watched flames engulf their family home.
When I visited Gundlach Bundschu, construction on their family’s house was well underway. The vines had just begun to bud. Winery devotees sipped chardonnay near the pond that the Bundschus expanded after the Hanly Fire. Winery staff and firefighters used that water to save the winery, the vineyards and the family’s beloved pear trees.
“The family business has withstood the test of time while learning from our past hardships and staying true to our roots,” Bundschu said.
Inside the stone-walled tasting room, I sidled up to the bar as host Cat Francisco poured everyone a splash of the winery’s 2017 Gewürztraminer. A man wearing a Gundlach Bundschu cap explained that after he saw on social media that the vineyard survived, he booked his flight to come support his favorite winery, “and buy this new hat,” he added, tipping it toward Francisco.
“The fires did have an immediate effect on tourism in the month following the fires,” Bundschu explained, especially since the media reported that the winery had been destroyed. Yet fans of this property, and its popular Huichica music festival, have returned for the quality wine it continues to produce.
“Well you know,” Francisco quipped, “Grapes are just weeds with exceptionally good PR.”
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At the nearby Chateau St. Jean’s vineyard, its winemaker, Margo Van Staaveren, met me in the gardens of the palatial property, saying that when she returned, she found only a handful of the vines had caught fire, and just a small slice of the winery grounds.
Lucky for the grape growers (and those who enjoy their output), the weather that year had forced a premature harvest. Approximately 85% of the Sonoma Valley grapes had been picked before any smoke infused grape skins, and so far no evidence of long-term damage to vines has been found. The smoke taint appears to only have affected unpicked grapes, not root systems.
Van Staaveren marveled how quickly wind could bring these competing businesses together, saying that Kenwood winemakers now share techniques to extract smoke taint, a nascent science spearheaded by Australian winemakers.
But for the 2017 fruit, what remained on the vines was either too smoky for wine, or blended into less expensive bottles. Van Staaveren did not seem too jazzed to offer me a taste.
I tried to get my hands on any bottle of 2017 wine made from fruit that remained when the fires blew in, but found no success. At the Glen Ellen Star restaurant, its owner Ari Weiswasser poured me a 2017 sauvignon blanc with no hint of smoke, saying no one wanted their names on smoky wine.
Learning to live with fire might be the future for California. In Sonoma Valley, an Office of Recovery and Resilience was created to implement better emergency response systems, ensuring evacuation plans for both locals and visitors. Hotels and wineries now have action plans and many are considering Childress’ advice to set controlled burns around their properties.
“We can become more resilient if we learn from others, share what we know and be adaptive,” said Tim Zahner, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau. “We learned to communicate early and often, have a plan for your family and co-workers, make plans for your visitors and take the long view.”
Tragedy can and will strike. But afterward we can learn to be more resilient, like our native oaks and bay laurels, like the people who first tended these wild lands. In many ways this fire sowed seeds of hope that humbled, and inspired, this bucolic community.
On my last day, I hiked down the fingers of charred terrain in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, where the ecologist Caitlin Cornwall pointed out evidence of nature’s ability to regenerate. Just four days after the fires, grasses appeared in the ash. Days later, leaves sprouted from the oaks’ and manzanitas’ charred trunks.
Cornwall created these fire ecology walks in October 2017 to help the community grieve and better understand how fires benefit nature. She describes forest fires as “a reset.”
But it’s not about restoration, as Childress explained the day before.
“There’s no restoring this,” he said. “What we are trying to build are ecologies for species that we want to have here: flowers, plants, birds. Because when the next wildfire — because there will be a next fire — happens, those species, relationships and connections are that much more resilient.”
Thus, so are we.