In fire zone, farmers look to the future

Issue Date: October 25, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman
Jim Regusci, left, owner of Regusci Winery, and Jason Lauritsen, director of vineyard operations, walk through a vineyard damaged by the Atlas Fire earlier this month. Regusci says about 25 of the 170 acres of vines on his ranch were affected.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Horses evacuated from fire zones graze at the Solano County Fairgrounds in Vallejo. At its peak, the fairgrounds housed nearly 600 evacuated animals. Most have returned home.
Kevin Hecteman

Jim Regusci's fight to keep the Atlas Fire from taking everything began with a 10 p.m. phone call. His Regusci Winery, along Silverado Trail in Napa County, had hosted a large event Oct. 8, and the last of the guests had just left.

"We drove out, took a look, and it was coming pretty quickly," Regusci said. "Within an hour and a half, fire was here."

In the meantime, Regusci got on the phone, arranging for bulldozers and people to fight off the flames. The dozers cut as many firebreaks as they could within an hour, and fire hoses were trained on the main buildings. Regusci's children and son-in-law showed up, as did six or eight employees.

The fire roared to within 10 to 15 feet of Regusci's aunt's house and threatened the back of his own home. But they "pushed all that fire out," he said. Then the fire headed toward outbuildings that housed fertilizers and chemicals.

"The big fire push was on the other side of the ranch, where it came right by the winery," Regusci said. "It was burning so quickly there that fuel tanks were wanting to blow up. They were getting hot."

These were saved by a bulldozer that pushed dirt onto the tanks, he said. Other dozers pushed over burning trees, which were doused with fire extinguishers. After four or five hours, he said, they got the ranch "under control," and the bulldozers went to work on neighboring properties.

On Friday, with those events nearly two weeks behind him, Regusci looked to the future.

His ranch had been up and running on generator power a couple of days after the fire. Jason Lauritsen, Regusci's director of vineyard operations, went from fighting a fire late Sunday to picking nearly 280 tons of grapes two nights later. A crew was set to go to work this week on erosion-control measures.

"On the grape side of it, I don't know what we lost yet," Regusci said.

The ranch includes about 170 acres of grapevines; of those, about 25 acres were affected. Some of the vines were destroyed; others won't reveal their fates for a while.

"I've been through fires before where we'll burn back and we'll burn the trunks, and they'll come back," Regusci said. "But where the fire sat, got really hot, the following year you'll see bud development will be impaired. And then the following year, we'll see if they pull out of it. So you've got a two-year process here."

If a vineyard has to be replaced, he said, he'll pull the vines, leave the ground idle for a year, then replant. The new vines would need four years to come into production.

Greg Clark, Napa County agricultural commissioner, said his office has been helping those who need to get into restricted-access areas to take care of business.

"Our primary focus has been getting people into areas to perform those critical and essential business activities such as harvesting, irrigating, setting up generators in some instances to do irrigating or to conduct winery operations, moving wine or doing pushdowns," Clark said. "Our office has been working to issue permits that grant people access behind soft closures—areas where it's not actively burning, but areas where there's still debris removal and repairs being made."

Damage estimates remain to be made, Clark said, noting that his staff is "still focused on trying to get in and do the things that they need to do, or assess the damage and the impacts themselves. We're not quite there yet in terms of getting numbers regarding loss or damage."

As winter approaches, erosion control will be of prime importance, Clark said.

"Some of these areas, especially on the east side of the valley, have been completely blackened," he said. "There are going to have to be tremendous efforts made to mitigate the fires' impact to prevent soil erosion and offsite sediment movement."

The Northern California fires also forced removal of hundreds of large animals, many of which found refuge at the Solano County Fairgrounds in Vallejo.

"At the highest point, we had nearly 600 animals here, and on one day we had 1,400 volunteers come through here," said Officer Kristina Bradley of the Solano County Sheriff's Animal Control unit. "We've had everything covered here, from veterinarians being on site to having the proper feed for the right animals, to having them all categorized."

When owners return their animals to the fire zone, they'll find pastures that may be in recovery mode for a while. Stephanie Larson, a livestock and range management advisor for University of California Cooperative Extension in Santa Rosa, said it can take two to three years for a burned pasture to return to normal.

"It's going to depend on precipitation, soil type, slope, things like that," Larson said.

She's trying to learn what the fire did to the soil: "Did it make the soil so that it's hydrophobic, and so it's not going to allow water to come in? Did it burn so hot that it sterilized the soil?"

Next steps are being researched, she said.

"We're working with soil scientists to figure that out as far as, is it just adding amendments, is it letting the soil just heal itself, or do we really need to remove some of that soil?" Larson said. "I would hope that the latter doesn't happen, because of erosion problems. We want to keep as much of that soil there as we can."

Looking around the fire-singed Napa Valley ranch his grandfather bought in 1932, Regusci counted his blessings.

"We lost some grapevines," he said. "A lot of people lost their homes and lives. We came through this thing without anything hurting us. There's a lot of people worse off than we are right now."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

See related story: Local, state, federal programs offer wildfire relief

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