Feature

Meet the California Winemakers Turned Firefighters

As wildfires become more frequent and intense, producers are signing up to fight them

Stacy Briscoe By August 20, 2021
The Butts Fire in Pope Valley overshadows the vineyards and winerys of Californias Napa Valley. Photo courtesy of tfoxfoto/iStock.

“It looked like we’re in a hurricane, but instead of water, it was fire and embers. At one point, the fire was all around us.”

High-pitched whistles sounded in the ears of Alan Viader, as propane tanks exploded. There was a burning house to the right, but he had to go left — because there was only one way in and one way out. And at any time, the fire could jump the road and block his exit.

“We stayed out all night, literally around-the-clock. What’s even crazier — I still had fruit waiting at the winery,” he recalls.

These are Viader’s memories of fighting the October 2017 Atlas Fire. The winemaker of his family’s Viader Vineyards & Winery in Deer Park, Napa Valley, Viader is also a five-year veteran of the Napa Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team and a 2021 graduate of the county’s volunteer firefighter academy.

“At night I’d run around helping with evacuations, then I’d race back to the winery at 9 or 10 a.m., slam a cup of coffee, and do all my pump overs and punch downs. We had no power, so everything was by hand,” he says. “Then I’d go back out and volunteer again.” 

On August 17, 2020, lightning hit northern California nearly 11,000 times in a 72-hour period. More than 370 fires began burning across the state, eventually merging into the LNU Complex fire, the fourth-largest fire in Californian history. When it crawled up toward his mountain top property, Viader’s search and rescue team wasn’t called. Instead, Viader texted maps, GPS coordinates, and other vital information to the fire crew attempting to save the estate where he grew up. 

The sheriff’s department, he explains, isn’t in charge of fighting fires. “They’re in charge of safety, evacuations, and they [the fire department] only use search and rescue when they need us,” he says. “I felt like I should have been there.”

So in 2021, Viader signed up for the volunteer fire academy.

Napa volunteer fire crew. Photo courtesy of Alan Viader.

A growing menace

Bush fires are nothing new for North Coast winemakers. “As soon as I joined, we were responding to grass fires,” says Fred Peterson, proprietor and winegrower of his eponymous Peterson Winery, in Dry Creek Valley. Peterson has served as a volunteer firefighter for the Northern Sonoma County Fire Protection Department for 35 years. “Every fall, we’d have at least a few wildfires, occasionally big ones. But nothing like what started in 2017.”

What’s changed, Peterson says, is an increase in the intensity of major wind events, dryer climatic conditions, and the amount of burnable material. Dried-out trees, leaf-litter, even the number of homes scattered across wine country act as a fuel source.

The LNU Complex Fire, for example, was a combination of the Hennessey, Gamble, Green, Markley, Spanish, and Morgan Fires; it burned a total of 363,220 acres and destroyed 1,491 structures, according to CalFire. 

Now, the word wildfire modifies the word season — a season lasting anywhere from July through October. California vintners take action where they can, from planting drought-resistant rootstock and heat-tolerant grape varieties to dry-farming and investing in smoke-taint research. 

Just as important, however, is the ability to protect land, property, business, and community in the wake of a firestorm. It is this desire to defend that has inspired members of the wine trade to pursue formal fire-defense training.

Charles McKahn, winemaker for his family’s McKahn Family Cellars and Napa-based William Harrison Vineyards & Winery, graduated in the same cohort as Viader. His home and places of business were spared from recent fire events, but he remembers that “2017 was my first run-in with a fire storm. I’d never experienced weather having such an effect on our livelihood.”

As he sat on his winery rooftop, watching devastation blaze through what should have been a bucolic country scene, he also felt a call to protect his community. “Watching something like that is not fun. I’d rather have the training to do something about it,” he says. “Really, this is a response to current events.”

Charles McKahn, volunteer firefighter. Photo courtesy of Charles McKahn.

McKahn recalls an old industry adage: grape growers and winemakers expect seven good vintages out of every 10. Now, he comments, the industry deals with fire, smoke, evacuations, and structure damages nearly every vintage. 

“Watching something like that is not fun. I’d rather have the training to do something about it. Really, this is a response to current events.”

The realities of volunteering

Both Viader and McKahn joined the Napa County volunteer fire academy in January 2021, graduating this past May. It’s a time-consuming, mentally draining, physically exhausting program they say. But both McKahn, 33 and Viader, 40, feel they have the ability and energy to protect their community. “If I don’t give back, I feel like I’m doing something wrong,” Viader says. 

McKahn comments that one of his greatest challenges is availability. “It’s more difficult than I thought. You can’t plan your week around waiting for that pager to go off.” But when it does, he says, “Whatever I’m doing won’t be as important as what’s going on. When the time comes, I’ll be ready.”

Viader is not just the one-man winemaking crew at his family’s estate, he’s also the clean-up and construction crew; the 2020 fires destroyed all but one building on his property. He’s fixing fences, replanting vines, and racking wines, but still finds the time to volunteer.

Viader notes the fire academy training offers reciprocal benefits. While useful during wildfire season, emergency response training is valuable year-round; the constant use of tools common to both firefighters and vintners, including chainsaws, pumps, and hoses, has made him stronger in the vineyard and cellar. “I’m also building our new fire protection system based on what I’ve seen and experienced in the fire department, in order to better defend my property.” 

He says that, at the moment, he’s one of the only vintner volunteer firefighters in Napa. “But I feel it makes sense for vintners and vineyard managers,” he adds. “We’re people who have the skills and understand pump systems, irrigation, fire behavior. More vineyard managers could be very good assets.”