The Fire Next Time

The images dominated the news during late 2017: Many of us watched, mesmerized, as wildfires swept across California. Seemingly unchecked, they destroyed homes, ravaged vineyards and engulfed wineries. Encouraged by drought conditions earlier in the year, there were two separate outbreaks. In October, 250 wildfires burned more than 245,000 acres and caused $9.4 billion in insured property losses. Then in December, the Santa Ana winds created another round of fires that consumed over 300,000 acres and caused 230,000 people to evacuate.

Even as you read this, there are drought conditions again in California and another horrific season of wildfires looms on the horizon. What’s being done to prevent it?

The short answer is not much. California residents are told that the state is “working on” a plan to avert future catastrophes, but no official action has yet been announced. To be fair, efforts are being made in the areas of fire engineering, vegetation management, risk analysis and enforcement. For the average person, however, it seems to come down to concepts such as “defensible space.” Citizens are being advised to create a perimeter around their property that would hopefully function as a firebreak, and that may or may not save them when the time comes.

There’s little doubt that it will come. It may be tempting to blame this on global warming, and climate change has undoubtedly intensified the risk. But the fact is that California has always suffered from severe drought and high winds. In September 1932, the Matilija Fire raged over 220,000 acres. There’s also no doubt that the dangers are getting far worse on a regular basis.

In the meantime, wineries continue to buy French oak barrels and cheerfully pour Chardonnay for visitors. We applaud them for their determination not to be defeated, much as we admire the courage of flood plain residents who rebuild their houses on the same spot following a hurricane. Let’s remember, though, that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over   and over again while expecting a totally different result.

The wine culture has transformed the landscape of Napa and Sonoma over the past fifty years. According to industry groups, California wine accounts for 325,000 jobs within the state and a total annual economic impact of more than $57 billion. To what extent is the state responsible for safeguarding that business? This is the issue that needs to be sorted out, and hopefully it will be resolved before the wildfires are once again ignited.

Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to


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