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Firefighter in California.
Reuters/Mike Blake
Far from the stage of calculating damages.
GRAPES OF WRATH

The real victims of the California wildfires are not the customers of the Napa wine industry

By Ephrat Livni

The deadly wildfires raging across northern California are destroying lives and livelihoods beyond those of its renowned winemakers.

The region’s scenic wine country—beloved by tourists—is being ravaged. And fine-wine production isn’t all that’s at risk. Little is known yet about the full extent of damage. Homes and businesses of residents not associated with the industry have seen extensive damage. Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, for example, was incinerated past the point of recognition, and some residents who’ve been allowed to return can’t even find their former homes in the ashes.

“The smoke has been intense giving an almost constant dusk-like reddish hue to the world,” Michael Conrad of Santa Rosa told Quartz in describing the scene in his burning city this morning (Oct. 10).

Blazes that began on Oct. 9 ignited entire swaths of Sonoma, Napa, and Yuba counties. At least 15 people have been killed, 1,500 structures destroyed and 20,000 residents evacuated. The financial damage has yet to be calculated as firefighters are working on containing the blazes. Even for California, where wildfires are common, the current conflagrations are considered exceptionally bad. Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.

The costs are expected to be astronomical. California’s wine industry attracted over 23 million tourists and sold $34 billion in retail value in the US last year, according to the Wine Institute, an industry advocacy group. The 4,700 in-state wineries produce 85% of American wine and 97% of national exports, and the Napa and Sonoma Valleys are where much of the finest wines are made, according to the institute.

There’s no doubt that the fires raging right now will hurt the industry. “We are heartbroken to share the news that our winery was burned down this morning,” The Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa’s Sonoma County announced on Facebook today (Oct. 10).

Even those who are untouched by the blazes directly may suffer. Jennifer Putnam, chief executive officer of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers association, told Bloomberg that the extent of damage to grapes on the vine will depend upon how long the smoke lingers.

Meanwhile, many more wait to find out the fate of their property. Gabs Meline, a producer at KQED radio, noted on Twitter that most residents still don’t know how their homes fared.

Sonoma County is mostly made up of working people outside the wine industry who can’t and don’t buy fancy bottles. In fact, in 2013, the top 1% of county residents earned an average income of $913,522, almost 20 times the local average income of $45,794, according to a 2016 report by the California Budget and Policy Center. The disparity is typical of this region, the report says, noting, “The highest-income households are doing especially well in regions that have seen substantial economic gains in recent decades, such as the San Francisco Bay Area. These regions have seen the most robust income growth overall, but their gains have been heavily concentrated among the top 1 percent.”

Conrad’s neighborhood is intact. “I barely have left the house under safety advisement, which in the downtown has been to stay put and watch for evacuation notices,” he says. Though he can get to work in downtown Santa Rosa today, business at the hair salon Razor Mike’s, where he is a stylist, is obviously slow today, and he may not make his rent money this month.

Residents even far from the fires are under orders to stay indoors. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has issued a smoke advisory for the entire Bay Area, including San Francisco, warning, “Heavy smoke from wildfires in the North Bay counties is causing very unhealthy air quality throughout the region and the smoke is moving into other parts of the Bay Area due to winds.”

In Sonoma County, “it’s like being in a room with a roaring fire, but you’re outdoors with no fire,” according to Matt Quinn, a Quartz editor who is a local resident. The air quality also seems to be worsening.

Those who do dare to emerge are devastated by the damage they see. Crying, Lien Mai, a Coffey Park resident whose home was destroyed, told the New York Times. “We are boat people. We had to start over when we came here from Vietnam. Now we have to restart again.”

This time, her California neighbors are in the same boat.