Wildfires outside of Los Angeles have caused serious destruction to winery property and vineyards in the Malibu Coast AVA, according to winemakers, as firefighters across California continue to battle to save lives and homes in some of the deadliest blazes in the state’s history.
Malibu Coast winemakers reported witnessing scenes of decimation due to fast-moving flames forming part of the Woolsey fire outside of Los Angeles.
At least 58 people were known to have died in the latest series of California wildfires, including two in the so-called Woolsey fire affecting Malibu Coast and 56 in the ‘Camp fire’ in the north of the state, according to CNN on Thursday (15 November). Hundreds of homes have also been destroyed.
While fire crews have naturally prioritised saving as many lives as possible, as well as protecting property, the president of the Malibu Coast Vintners and Grape Growers Alliance, Greg Barnett, said he was trying to reach the body’s 40 vineyard members.
‘We have been in contact with at least half of them, and we’ve learned there’s been extensive damage to virtually all of the vineyards and wineries throughout the AVA,’ Barnett said.
‘We are thankful that there were no reports of injuries and that everyone’s family got to safety before the inferno reached their property. The speed with which the fire escalated was terrifying.’
Cal Fire said on 14 November that the Woolsey fire was 52% contained and had burned through 98,362 acres of land, nearly 40,000 hectares.
Several Malibu producers said that vineyards, which do not burn easily, helped to mitigate fire damage.
‘Without a doubt, being surrounded by 10,000 vines saved my house and barn,’ said Richard Hirsh, owner of Cielo Vineyards. ‘We turned the vineyard’s drip irrigation system on.’
Still, Hirsh said that he would probably need to replant 3,000 to 4,000 vines. ‘All the stakes burned down, the posts are gone, the netting virtually evaporated, and the irrigation hoses melted away.’
He said that he had originally planned to stay behind to protect his property, ‘but when you see the ferocity of 100-foot flames, you feel their heat and the absolute roar of the sound I knew that no way could I stick around’.
Others were not so fortunate. ‘It’s complete, total devastation up here,’ said Jim Palmer, of Malibu Vineyard.
‘My vineyard was in Decker Canyon, and the entire place is all burned out, with 15 houses gone. Anything in the canyons is totally wiped out. I’m speechless – a friend who’s a fireman sent me a picture of what’s left of my house and vineyard and everything’s just ash, totally levelled.’
Krystian Orlinski, of South Slope Malibu Winery on Foos Road and a Reuters reporter who was out covering the fire, said that his vineyard received some damage and the flames took his guest house and work shed, as well as the water supply. But his house was still standing and his wife and children were safe in a hotel away from the danger.
‘I’ve worked for Reuters for 28 years, doing my time in the war zones and covering difficult stories, but this was just a whole other scene,’ Orlinski told the Malibu Coast Vintners Alliance.
During the attempts to rescue people from the fire’s path, it was also reported that billionaire winery owner Howard Leight used his luxury yacht to help rescue people from the Woolsey fire. Leight co-owns Malibu Rocky Oaks winery.
Malibu Coast became an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 2014 and comprises a little more than 18,000 hectares (44,590 acres).
‘We hope that our members are able to move on from this and rebuild,’ said Barnett. ‘Some were more fortunate than others but we’re doing what we can to help each other out.’