Forbes: One Vintner’s Tale Of Peril In California’s Napa Valley

11/1/2017 4:57:34 PM

Fire On The Mountain: One Vintner’s Tale Of Peril In California’s Napa Valley

Forbes | By John McCarthy | Nov 1, 2017 | Original Article

Sunday, October 8, 11:00 pm: Napa Valley winery owner Christian Palmaz received a text from a buddy with news that a fire was spreading through Atlas Peak, about two ridgelines away. Christian thought little of it. He had no inkling he would soon be facing the first of seven fires ignited that night, the beginning of what became a raging inferno, raining hell on Sonoma, Santa Rosa, and Napa—claiming 42 lives, decimating over 6,000 homes and businesses, and damaging or destroying 27 wineries. As I am writing this, fires in Santa Rosa are contained, but not out.

12:00 am: “I could see the glow on the top of the mountain,” says Christian Palmaz, owner and operator of Palmaz Vineyard in Napa, California.  “No news agencies were reporting this; it was the first fire, the beginning. The power started flickering, and that was the first sign that this was something big, but there were no evacuation orders, nothing like that. We ended up losing power, so I drove to the winery to make sure the generators transferred over. When I came out at 1:00 am, the fire was near the property line. It moved half a mile in a matter of what felt like minutes. I couldn’t believe it.”

The Palmaz winery and estate has several homes on the property where Christian’s family, parents, and sister live, and the flames were closing in. He told his wife and sister to pack a bag, open all the gates, and evacuate. Christian called 911, but by then fires were spreading throughout the valley. He was on his own.

“The wind was howling and pushing the flames south toward the pool house and the guest house. I called 911, but I knew they weren’t coming. Looking down on the valley, I could see fire trucks racing toward a high density of homes on the side of the mountain. The area was just on fire.”

Palmaz keeps a 1,000-gallon water trailer with a fire pump ready to go at the vineyard, which he hooked up to a tractor and pulled to his parent’s house. Burning embers were swirling everywhere, starting small fires all around the house. He emptied the water tank within 40 minutes and resorted to fighting with a shovel and a garden hose. The plan was to stay as long as he felt safe and pray that help arrives. The smoke was getting bad.

“The fire couldn’t burn the vineyard. Instead, it worked around and started burning the side of the winery, which I wasn’t concerned about at all; it’s made of stone and fully underground. The thing keeping me busy was the embers falling around my parent’s house. Fortunately, I was able to keep it somewhat under control.”

2:00 am: Palmaz had no clue the wood deck in back of the estate’s guest house had caught fire. By the time he realized it, the home was engulfed in flames. Cutting his losses, Palmaz stood his ground and hoped for the best.

3:45 am: Palmaz sees a blaze of flashing lights, and the fire department roars in with a vengeance. They hooked up to the winery’s hydrant and pumped water from the pool, dousing everything, and within the hour the area was secure. The trucks moved on—there were fires everywhere—but the winery’s water supply became an invaluable resource in securing the mountain.

“Coombsville is a residential area, and it’s sparse. We have a whole commercial fire system; it’s one of the only reliable sources of fire-water in the area. Trucks were coming, one after the next, hooking up to our fire hydrants and filling their tanks. They did this the entire next day, 24 hours straight. It felt good to contribute in some small way.”

Once California declared a state of emergency, there were thousands of fire trucks from all over, and Palmaz’s family opened their doors to the responders. His mom was in the kitchen cranking out quesadillas and empanadas for the volunteers who came from as far as Reno, Nevada, and San Diego.

“You have such a sense of gratitude to these people who came and kept the fires from getting worse. The fires were horrible, and a lot of people lost their homes; some people lost their lives. You drive up the streets, and there are signs everywhere thanking the firefighters and the first responders.”

SANTA ROSA, CA – OCTOBER 15: A handmade sign is seen on the fence surrounding a makeshift campground for first responders at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, California (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)


It’s now two weeks past that harrowing night, and Palmaz has had time to absorb what transpired. His response is to learn from the experience by better preparing his winery for unexpected situations, and encourages the community to do the same. Palmaz points out that Napa’s stock-in-trade is a fragile product with a long and complex supply chain. At any given time, a winery houses three years of production, and losing it all, as many just did, is devastating.

“Napa Valley can learn from this. Industries like food production facilities or hospitals harden their process to survive natural disasters, and so should we. We must consider what happens if an earthquake occurs and your employees can’t come to work. There’s no power or water, so how long can the product last in any given state? How long will the facility protect itself before it runs out of resources? Our winery is well prepared, but I never anticipated a fire lasting days. We pushed the limits here.”

Before and after the fire aerials taken from Palmaz’s Vineyard Infrared Growth Optical


Palmaz notes that the outpouring of support from around the world has been incredible, and everybody wants to help. Many local wineries, including Palmaz who is donating 20% of the proceeds of their latest allocation release, will contribute to funds for people who lost their homes and support the Napa Valley Disaster Relief Fund. According to Christian, the best thing people can do to contribute is visit.

“People need to come back. The streets are empty. Hospitality drives this area, and right now all these wineries, restaurants, and hotels are staffed up. Hotels can only handle a certain amount of low occupancy before they start pairing back staff. People need that tourism boom more than ever here.”