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'Unprecedented' Wildfire Season Threatens California's Wine Region

Ash covered grapes burned by the Glass Fire at the Chateau Boswell winery in St. Helena, California, U.S., on Monday.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Ash covered grapes burned by the Glass Fire at the Chateau Boswell winery in St. Helena, California, U.S., on Monday.

Firefighters are battling multiple wildfires in northern California that are threatening entire towns, while thousands are under evacuation orders, burning through homes and some of the state's prestigious wineries.

Speaking at a news conference Monday afternoon, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that the fast moving Glass Fire in Napa County and the Zogg Fire in Shasta County, are top priorities. Both fires erupted Sunday and their cause is under investigation.

"There is nothing more pressing that the activity in northern California over the next 24-36 hours," Newsom said, calling it an "unprecedented wildfire season."

The Glass Fire, which quickly destroyed several structures , including a winery, as it grew rapidly overnight from 800 to 11,000 acres, with zero containment. The Zogg Fire has grown to 7,000 acres, Newsom said.

Last year, the state experienced fewer than 5,500 fires with 157,000 acres burned, but so far, 2020 has been much more devastating — with more than 8,000 fires covering 3.75 million acres, or nearly 6,000 square miles. Some 7,100 structures have been destroyed and 26 people have been killed by the fires so far this year, the governor said.

Strong offshore winds, low humidity and high temperatures remain a high risk in the region, according to the National Weather Service. It extended a red flag warning in northern California until Monday night, due to "critical fire weather conditions through today."

Some of these fires, such as the Glass Fire, Shady Fire and the Boysen Fire, have merged due to weather conditions, and Newsom warned that the Zogg fire may do the same, joining the August Complex Fire — the largest in the state, already engulfing more than 878,000 acres raging. It is 45% contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Calfire.

Astrid Dobo, the fire chief of Post Mountain Fire Department, lives a few miles from the north end of the August Complex Fire and east of the Zogg Fire.

Dobo said that the August fire has been moving relatively slowly because "it's chewing through large trees, instead of brush or grassland" except on Sunday, she told NPR. "Yesterday was a chaotic wind day and it made the fire move in every direction."

Post Mountain has been under mandatory evacuation orders since September 17. Dobo said that initially people heeded the order, but then moved back.

"They've grown to feel safe," she said, "but we can all see the cloud of smoke from the August Complex fire."

"The direction that the fire is going, it's pretty obvious that something will happen soon," that it will reach her community, she said, "and it's tough, it's hard to know when and it's hard to know what to tell the community."

Flames roared into the city of Santa Rosa last night where Kent Porter, a photographer for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, tweeted pictures of homes burning.

Newsom said the winds are expected to die down overnight, but warned, "we are maintaining our vigilance and that remains a top area of focus in the state." He urged Californians to heed local law enforcement warnings and orders.

A total of 70 large wildfires are burning in 10 western states. In California 22 fires are burning, followed by 14 in Idaho and 11 in Oregon, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.