Sunday was warm, dry and very windy in the Bay Area, the kind of day you had to hold onto your hat (if you wore one) lest it blow away. I was down in San Leandro, 6 BART stops away from my home, doing some shopping at the mall. Then I had some lunch at the food court. When I went outside—in fact, before I even got to the main doors—I smelled it. The all-too familiar, acrid smell of burning tinder.
It’s a smell we’ve come to know well here. I can’t remember ever smelling it, in either San Francisco or Oakland, in the forty years I’ve lived here, until last year. That was when northerly winds pushed the smoke south from the Wine Country fires. It was even worse this year, especially with the Carr Fire, in Redding. Even though that’s more than 200 miles away, it could have been next door, so foul was the air. People were wearing face masks. Everything smelled like an ashtray, the sun was a dim orange smear through gray haze, and it went on for days at a time.
This summer, of course, we had the vast Mendocino Complex fire (which for some reason didn’t pollute our air very much), as well as others, such as the one that closed Yosemite. Then, in the middle of August, the weather suddenly cooled down, and continued cool for the next six weeks. No Labor Day heat wave! Moderate temperatures, from the coast to the Central Valley. I told a friend, two weeks ago, how great the weather was for ripening wine grapes. Growers love nothing more than constant, steady, dry weather, with none of those pesky heat spikes that so often strike Northern California this time of year. Yesterday, when I was reading the winebusiness.com online news publication, they featured this story about how the “ripening period has been void of extreme heat which will allow for some extended hang time and great phenolic maturity in the fruit,” leading to what some already are calling a vintage “for the record books.”
Now, just to put this into context, in my thirty-plus years as a wine reporter, I got used to growers and winemakers predicting the Best.Vintage.Ever every single year. It’s part and parcel of the hype that surrounds everything in the wine industry to assure consumers that the vintage was fabulous, perfect, heavenly. On the other hand, I—as a conscientious reporter—always tracked the weather, so I knew about the heat waves, the rain storms, the smoke taint, the mold, the crush rushes. Winemakers are not above spreading around a little “fake news” if they think it will help them sell their products.
But 2018 really does seem different. Ripening grapes hate weather extremes; so sensitive is the grape to the slightest perturbations in the weather that the resulting wine—an exquisitely complex liquid of thousands of compounds—will tell-tale every adverse condition it experienced. This year, however, as I said, things do appear to be just about perfect. (There are some issues with smoke taint in Lake County, though.)
But there was that troubling smell when I exited the mall. And it wasn’t slight, but lung-choking. I scanned the skies: Where was the fire? I saw no columns of smoke, although, to the south and east, the sky looked like a low fog had drifted in. I knew that wasn’t the case: there was no fog between Canada and Mexico along the coast, our weather being dominated by a big, fat ridge of high pressure sitting right on top of us, influenced by a massive low pressure system over the Four Corners that brought the wind whipping in, at gale force, from the north. Hence holding onto my cap.
I tried using my i-Phone to find out where the fire was. Nothing was yet trending on Twitter. I went to Cal Fire’s website and found it: 4,000 acres on fire in Suisun City, a suburban community halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento, in the Central Valley. I knew, then, that it was a brushfire, not a forest fire: good news. And good news, too, that there are no wine grapes out that way, or not very many anyway. Smoke taint would not be a problem.
As of yesterday (Monday) morning, the fire had been extinguished by our brave firefighters. We still have a few weeks of fire season left in Northern California (in Southern California, fire season now seems to last all year) before the rains come (although last week, wine country did have some pretty good downpours in their first storm of the season, a storm that did not extend south of the Golden Gate into the Bay Area). So we may get off relatively lightly this year.
But wildfires, whether of heavily-forested slopes or rolling grasslands, do appear to be the new normal in California (and Oregon). Sadly, the Trump regime doesn’t seem unduly bothered. They’re cutting funding for firefighting efforts in a way that’s never before been done. The International Fire Chiefs Association reports that “many fire service programs would be cut under the President’s proposed budget,” while the Center for Investigative Reporting, highly respected in California, issued a scathing indictment of Trump’s cuts to wildfire-fighting. It charged that “the Trump administration has offered no reason for targeting the Joint Fire Science Program,” and added that the cuts to fire agencies were merely among “dozens of areas [which] the White House has proposed slashing…Defunding those efforts will endanger lives,” the Center concluded.
Is this because California and Oregon are Blue States? Would Trump really allow his political thirst for revenge to kill people and destroy property? I’m sure Sarah Huckabee Sanders would call that an outrageous charge, but the facts strongly suggest otherwise.