“Greatest Fire in History Ravages Napa County” read the headline in the St. Helena Star.  Only this was not the terrible 2017 fires, nor the August 2020 fire, nor the devastating Glass Fire just controlled.  It was the Hanley Fire, and headline is from the Star for September 16, 1964.

It is a lesson, Napa County, and all of California, have been beset by fires throughout our history.  But there are things about the 2020 fires that are different, and looking back on historic fires helps us understand what they are.

The 1964 Hanley Fire began when a hunter discarded a burning cigarette.  Before it was controlled the fire spread to five counties and consumed 72,000 acres.  It was Napa County’s worst fire to that time in recorded history.  And after 1964, Napa County began experiencing more fires, but they were nothing like those in 2020. 

A 1999 fire burned 38,000 acres.  In 2017, much of the same area that was burned in 1964 was consumed in the Tubbs Fire that burned from Calistoga to the city of Santa Rosa, and destroyed more than 5,600 structures, including many homes in Santa Rosa.  The 2020 Glass Fire also burned some of the same areas as the Hanley Fire, especially near the small town of Angwin. And the Glass Fire may well leave the longest impact for the wineries and high end businesses it destroyed. 

A major difference between the 1964 Henley Fire and this year’s Glass Fire is in the structures it destroyed.  Both fires required the evacuation of the city of Calistoga and burned extensively in the eastern hills of the Napa Valley.  But in 1964, 84 homes, 24 summer cabins and maybe 50 farm buildings were burned.  In 2020, 1,536 structures were damaged or destroyed, including 31 restaurants, wineries and resorts.  The major difference: Napa County is much more built up than it was half a century ago.

Perhaps the worst damage was along the picturesque Silverado Trail on the east side of Napa Valley.  I am very familiar with this area as my family owned a winery and vineyard on Larkmead Lane that runs west from Silverado Trail from 1895 until 1943.  My grandmother continued to live at Larkmead and I spent lots of time there as a kid. 

The current owners of the Larkmead Vineyards winery reported that the trees along the Napa River on their property burned.  I know these trees very well, they were old 60 years ago and I do not believe they have burned as far back as records go.  For those trees to catch fire embers had to travel more than a mile from the Silverado Trail.  In the high winds the embers flew even farther as wooded land on both sides of Napa Valley burned.  The Glass Fire literally leaped the width of the Valley.  That had not happened in prior fires and shows the fury of this modern fire.

The Glass Fire also shows us the increasing danger of building structures in and next to wooded areas in fire prone California.  Every winery and restaurant destroyed along Silverado Trail was built there since 1964.  Four major wineries burned:  Fairwinds Estates, founded as Cuvaison in1969; Dutch Henry Winery, built in the 1990s just off Silverado Trail; the ultra-modern 1990s Hourglass Winery; and the distinctive Chateau Boswell Winery founded in the 1970s.  Additionally the luxury Calistoga Ranch with 50 free standing guest lodges described as being “tucked into a private canyon on a 157 acre site marked by ancient oaks” burned completely.  So did the three Michelin Star Meadowood Restaurant at that five star luxury resort.

I doubt the owners of Dutch Henry Winery, Hourglass Winery and Calistoga Ranch would have known this, but within a mile of their now destroyed properties was a winery built in 1916 by a French immigrant named Francois Saviez.  In 1946, a forest fire in these same hills burned his winery and it was never rebuilt.  Seventy four years separated the destruction of Napa Valley wineries in exactly the same place.

So what can we learn from this experience:

Climate Change is real:  Climate change and global warming did not cause the recent fires, but it makes them worse because of the extreme heat, high wind and dry conditions.  The now decade-long drought probably has more to do with the fires as it has killed millions of trees.  California has to get used to climate change; certainly the state’s effort at reducing greenhouse gasses have done nothing to curtail climate change, and the millions of tons of carbon the fires released into the atmosphere will only make things worse.  California has to live with climate change and plan for it.

Building the heavily wooded areas is a mistake:  The “ancient oaks” in Calistoga Ranch’s “private canyon” were an invitation to fire.  As Californians have moved outward from our cities over the past 50 years more and more housing in the “woods” is just waiting for a fire. Seventy mile an hour winds will blow burning embers for miles, as my Larkmead trees showed.

Dramatic tree thinning and ground clearing is vital:  “The reason wildfires are burning California with unprecedented ferocity this year is because our public forests are so thick. It is our fault. We don’t manage our forests, we just let them grow,” says forestry professor Thomas Bonnicksen.  August’s Hennessey Fire, also in Napa County threatened the 130 year old Nichelini Winery, located up a deep canyon.  The fire came to the edge of the winery, but it was saved because its owners had cut back brush and thinned trees on their property, and had a sprinkler system installed for their buildings.  California simply has too many trees, its forests need clearing and thinning.

Fortunately the legislature seems to realize this and has begun spending more money on forest management.

The Napa County forests will grow back and it may be another 50 or 75 years before this same area burns again, but it will burn again.  The question is whether we will be ready for the fire next time.