Weather and Natural Disasters

More than 6,000 firefighters battling wildfires in California as vineyards, homes burn

Key Points
  • Extreme heat and dry conditions are leading to a busy wildfire season in California
  • The major fires are spread throughout the state, resulting in thousands of evacuations
  • Two large blazes are in the Santa Barbara area, including one that caused damage to a vineyard run by Treasury Wine Estates

More than 6,000 firefighters battled 14 large wildfires across California Monday as hot, dry and windy conditions in many areas fanned flames, forcing thousands of evacuations and destroying dozens of structures.

A firefighter carries a hose as a house burns in Oroville, California on July 8, 2017.
Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Images

One blaze scorched vineyards in a major wine region of the state and another briefly trapped youth at a summer camp. Australian vintner Treasury Wine Estates confirmed to CNBC that one of its California vineyards was damaged in the wildfires.

Three of the largest fires burning now in the state have already charred more than 54,000 acres, or about 84 square miles. The state's five-year drought left extremely dry vegetation and winter rains produced thick grasses, which are now drying out and providing the perfect fuel for massive fires.

"The drought-stressed vegetation is still out there with an abundant grass crop that we have across the state," Cal Fire spokeswoman Amy Head said Monday. "Those are both factors contributing to the number of fires that we're seeing."

Overall, California has seen an amount of acreage charred so far this year that is more than double the amount at the same period last year, according to Cal Fire. The risk of fire remains high statewide with more than 100 million dead trees in California forests following the long drought.

The busy start to the fire season could result in increased firefighting costs for the state at a time when California is seeing its state revenues fall below forecasts. On Monday, the state Controller's Office reported that monthly revenues for June were about $2.7 billion short of projections in the governor's revised budget.

The state spent more than $210 million last year during the wildfire season and so far this season it appears to be spending money at a faster pace than last June or July in order to keep up with the growing number of fires.

The largest of the blazes now underway in the state is dubbed the Alamo Fire, which has burned nearly 29,000 acres since it broke out July 6 in San Luis Obispo County. The fire later spread to Santa Barbara County and officials say more than than 130 structures are threatened and at least one house has been lost.

Wineries and vineyards also have been in the path of the Alamo Fire, including some located in the Santa Maria area.

"As of Sunday, our vineyard teams were reporting some vines burnt along the eastern perimeter of the property," said James Caudill, a spokesman for Treasury Wine Estates in Napa, California.

TWE is an Australian Stock Exchange-listed company owning several major California wineries, including North Canyon Vineyard in Santa Maria.

"Fire surrounded parts of the vineyard and burned through the canyons, hillsides along the river bed which runs through a portion of the property," Caudill said in an emailed statement. "No major infrastructure (sheds or equipment) had been damaged."

The property of adjacent Bien Nacido Vineyards, though, was spared any wildfire damage.

"We had the fire come down to the edges of our vineyard, but we were able to maintain the fire lines that we had cut," said Michael Brughelli, sales manager for Bien Nacido Vineyards.

Added Brughelli, "The fire came to within 50 feet of the vineyards. We worked through the night with our crew and fire crews to ensure that the vineyard was fully protected and that the fire wouldn't encroach on our vineyards."

Wildfires can sometimes cause smoke damage to wine grapes. However, Brughelli said there did not appear to be any such problem for his vineyard's crop.

"The smoke went up and away from our vineyards," Brughelli said. "Some of our neighbors maybe are not quite as fortunate. But for what we see, we've done some testing and find zero contamination by way of what we call smoke taint on our ranch."

The fast-moving fire took off Friday, doubling size with help from sundowner winds, which are known to hit the Santa Barbara and Santa Maria region during the wildfire season. At the same time, temperatures were above 100 degrees in the fire area.

The Alamo Fire was 15 percent contained as of Monday evening and more than 130 structures remained threatened, according to Cal Fire. About 1,700 fire personnel were fighting the blaze, including inmate firefighters who receive fire training while serving prison time.

Yet another Santa Barbara County wildfire is the so-called Whittier Fire in the Los Padres National Forest, which started Saturday and has burned nearly 11,000 acres. Much of the area hasn't burned since the mid-1950s and years of drought have left high levels of dead vegetation and fuels to feed the fire.

The federal government usually reimburses state and local fire agencies for help fighting blazes in the national forests. However, the state's emergency services agency recently claimed the U.S. Forest Service didn't fully pay costs last year to fight some fires in California on federal lands.

The Associated Press reported Saturday the Whittier Fire had "temporarily trapped about 90 children at a summer camp." There also were reports of a Boy Scouts camp burning down over the weekend just before it was scheduled to start a new season.

As of Monday evening, the Whittier Fire was only 5 percent contained.

Further north, firefighters are battling several blazes, including the so-called Wall Fire in Butte County. The fire has burned at least 17 structures, including some homes in the Oroville area — a community about 70 miles north of Sacramento.

Around 4,000 people in Butte County were under evacuation orders from the 5,600-acre blaze, which was about 35 percent contained as of Monday afternoon. On Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency in the county, where the National Guard was activated to help battle the blaze and provide aerial firefighting support.