Farmers assess losses from Kincade Fire


Issue Date: November 6, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Rachel LaFranchi and her dog, Sydney, look over barns destroyed by the Kincade Fire on the family’s Oak Ridge Angus Ranch west of Calistoga. Though barns and hay were lost, almost all of the cattle survived. Nine of the 12 people who live on the ranch lost their homes.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Vintner and grape grower Jim Young checks on some of the vines on his ranch near Geyserville. The fire burned the hillside behind him, but the vines checked the fire’s spread.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

As the Kincade Fire in Sonoma County neared full containment, farmers and ranchers reviewed damage to pastures, barns, vineyards and other agricultural property in the fire zone.

Amid the temporary corrals sheltering some of her family's cattle, Rachel LaFranchi counted her blessings.

"We're all really thankful," said LaFranchi, whose family owns Oak Ridge Angus Ranch west of Calistoga. "Everybody is safe. We're thankful the entire family made it out."

The Kincade Fire broke out near the ranch Oct. 23 and hit the property the following weekend, leveling barns, corrals and most of the homes. Of the 12 people living on the ranch, LaFranchi said, nine lost their homes.

LaFranchi considers herself "crazy lucky"—her own house survived. So did most of the cattle, although all their hay and pastureland was lost.

Then the community rallied around them.

"The community support has been fantastic," LaFranchi said. "All of us have received so many text messages, phone calls, offers to help. It's been amazing."

Since the fire, people have been at the ranch for days feeding cattle, getting the water up and running again and setting up temporary corrals and fencing.

"The Sonoma County Farm Bureau set up a fire relief fund for the ranch as well as the nine people out here whose homes burned down," LaFranchi said. "We're just really appreciative of their support."

That includes a hay drive to help feed the cattle; across the road from the corrals stand hundreds of hay bales donated by Barlas Feeds of Petaluma and others.

The ranch has been in her family since Swiss immigrant Massimino LaFranchi bought the place in 1912, and Rachel—one of the fourth generation to live on that land—said it's going to stay that way.

"I don't think we know exactly what lies ahead," she said. "I do know that the whole family is very committed to coming back here."

Down the road in Alexander Valley, east of Geyserville, fourth-generation farmer Jim Young took stock of the damage to his family's Robert Young Estate Winery—named for his late father, the first to plant cabernet sauvignon grapes in the valley.

The fire, he said, jumped a vineyard and set an equipment shed on fire. His brother tried to put the fire out using the farm's water tanker.

"He said it was just evaporating before it would even hit the flames," Young said. "So I think he eventually decided he couldn't put it out."

Firefighting efforts on the property consisted of saving the winery and tasting room, which both survived, as did the family's main home and his brother's home.

As the equipment shed burned, Young said, "it created tremendous heat" that "pretty well damaged" vines on the edge of a yet-to-be-harvested block of cabernet sauvignon.

"We won't be able to get any of the grapes off of here," he said. "Just a few vines in, however, you could see it turns green again—somewhat green, because it's late in the season."

Fruit on those vines could be salvageable unless there's too much smoke damage, Young said, adding that the vines themselves "are going to be totally fine." As for the vines on the edge, he said he'll know for sure in the spring, when they bud out.

Young estimated he had about 11 tons of grapes left to harvest for his own winery, and about 250 tons total. The main issue now, he said, is that the vines are dehydrated—his electric irrigation pumps had been out of commission because of a power outage.

The tasting room, perched on a hill overlooking the valley, benefited from being surrounded and protected by vines, Young said.

That was a recurring theme in the fire-stricken area, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

"We've heard, just like in 2017, that our vineyards are acting as firebreaks," Kruse said. "Agriculture has been a really nice part of the solution when it comes to helping slow and stop the fires, and that definitely was true this time around as well."

The commission is asking growers for an early assessment of the fire's effects on vineyards, Kruse said. She estimated harvest was about 92% complete when the fire broke out.

"If you were anywhere in the county and not in an impacted area, you were rushing if the grapes were ripe at all," Kruse said. "You were no longer going to be patient with them."

Harvest was up to 95% completed by the weekend of Oct. 26-27, when mandatory evacuations made further work all but impossible, and she said the past week-plus has been spent helping grape growers deal with the remaining 5%.

"A lot of that was up in the impacted areas in terms of the more severe evacuations, like Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Knight's Valley," Kruse said, "just by the nature of cabernet sauvignon being the primary grapes grown" in those areas.

The commission is also focused on helping agricultural employees who lost housing, possessions or work time during the fires and power shutoffs. Kruse said her group is asking growers for information on affected employees, and providing them gift cards to replace lost food or clothing. The commission's affiliated Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation is taking donations at www.scggf.org.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau continues its fundraising efforts at www.paypal.me/sonomafb and www.gofundme.com/kmrfxs-kincade-fire-relief-fund. American Ag Credit is matching donations dollar for dollar up to $25,000.

The Napa County Farm Bureau will host a Sonoma Fire Victims Drive from 3 to 7 p.m. Nov. 8 at its offices, 811 Jefferson St., Napa. The Farm Bureau encouraged Napa County residents to bring items to donate, as well as monetary contributions, with everything going to the Sonoma County Farm Bureau Kincade Fire Relief Fund. For further information, see the Latest News section at www.napafarmbureau.org/.

The California Farm Bureau Federation also has a relief fund, the Farm and Rural Disaster Fund, through its affiliated California Bountiful Foundation. For more information, follow the link at the top of the CFBF homepage at www.cfbf.com.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.