Napa, Sonoma wineries hit hard by wildfires

Wildfires are devastating California’s Napa and Sonoma wine country, with tens of thousands of people forced to evacuate as flames devour buildings and grounds alike.

Signorello Estate near Napa was among those wineries reported destroyed or seriously damaged by one of the many wildfires that exploded overnight Sunday to Monday. Also reported destroyed was the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel in Santa Rosa. Many wineries and businesses in the area are unreachable; the power appeared to be out and phone lines down.

“At this point, there’s still a question mark on what’s happening. There hasn’t been a lot of actual wineries have burned but we’ve had reports of some vineyards and personal homes of winemakers that have been destroyed,” said Maureen L. Cottingham, the executive director of the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance. “Right now, we’re all just crossing our fingers.”

Pictures showed flames leaping from the Signorello Estate’s ivy-covered headquarters, the walls collapsed inward. Rumors were flying Monday about what other vineyards were impacted, but specific details were few because the situation remains fluid – and dangerous.

“There are absolutely a lot of wineries and vineyards that have been impacted by these fires. Even vegetation like grapes that’s been irrigated will still burn in a wildfire,” said Dan Berlant, a spokesman for the statewide CalFire agency. “These wildfires are burning everything in their paths. There is significant structure loss, not only to homes but also to commercial structures.”

At least 10 people have died and 100 are injured in the Northern California fires, officials said. CalFire chief Ken Pimlott estimated that 1,500 homes, businesses and other structures were destroyed — making Monday one of the most destructive wildfire days in state history. CalFire officials say they're being conservative with the destruction estimates, and expect them to rise as more information comes in.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in three counties and mobilized the National Guard to help combat the burgeoning crisis. CalFire has called in the world's largest firefighting air tanker, a converted 747, which made multiple drops Monday.

Among the worst of the vineyard-area fires was the Tubbs Fire, which flared up overnight and burned 25,000 acres as of Monday afternoon in the Santa Rosa area.

Santa Rosa lost a Kmart in addition to the Hilton, along with an unknown number of other businesses and homes, as the blaze shut down its schools and forced patients at two city hospitals to evacuate.

"Imagine a wind-whipped fire burning at explosive rates. This is 50 miles per hour. Literally it's burning into the city of Santa Rosa ... burning box stores," Pimlott said. "This is traditionally California's worst time for fires, California's most damaging times for fires have occurred in October."

Portions of California’s wine country have had an unseasonably warm and dry fall, and many hillsides are primed to burn. Strong winds drove the flames through the night, sending heavy smoke to San Francisco, 70 miles to the southwest. Unlike the rest of the United States, California’s wildfire season often extends into October and November. Cal Fire said 15 new wildfires had broken out in Northern California in 12 hours starting yesterday afternoon; the causes were under investigation.

Hundreds of vineyards and wineries drape across the rolling hills of the Russian River Valley, through Healdsburg and Calistoga, and this is prime tourist season as grapes are harvested and pressed. Ordinarily, tourists would be stomping grapes and tasting last year’s vintages as winemakers blend for upcoming years.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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