California wildfires force evacuations of thousands; Sonoma County wineries dodge bullet

A group of wildfires in California are scorching several areas, forcing evacuations of thousands from their homes and threatening the state's world-famous vineyards.

But on Tuesday the latest reports from firefighters were that injuries were minimal so far. And wine grape growers in northern California are breathing sighs of relief after one of the wildfires was 40% contained and appears to have missed the region's noted grape-growing lands.

The blaze, dubbed locally as the Point Fire, started Sunday and put wineries and residents in famous Healdsburg, California, on edge during the Father's Day holiday, said Lauren Fremont, executive director of Winegrowers of the Dry Creek Valley. But by Tuesday, no wineries had seen significant destruction and it felt like a "best case scenario," she told USA TODAY.

"We really got very lucky and spared for the most part," Fremont said.

The fire destroyed two structures and led to one injury, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and firefighters had contained 40% of the blaze as of Tuesday.

Elsewhere in California, firefighters are battling many other wildfires, including a massive fire burning outside Los Angeles, prompting more than 1,000 people to evacuate.

The Sonoma-area fire was the latest of several in the past seven years to directly threaten the wine region. Weather and climate conditions mean the blazes will likely continue, said Corey Manning, who owns a winery located a quarter of a mile from the recent fire.

"It’s kind of a recurring trauma," said Manning, explaining how many winery owners, staff and first responders in the area come together to do post-traumatic counseling through a music therapy program founded by Rick Allen, the drummer for the rock ban Def Leppard.

High winds and dry conditions spurred blazes in southern California Tuesday, and in New Mexico, firefighters struggled to contain wildfires outside the small town of Ruidoso. Hundreds of structures in the area have been impacted by fire.

Wine country fires are impacting growers

The Dry Creek Valley in California's Sonoma County is known for its Zinfandel grapes, some of which grow on vines that are more than 100 years old, Fremont said. The area also produces exceptional Sauvignon Blanc, she said, and over 30 other types of wine.

Manning's winery, Chateau Diana, is known for its Chardonnay and Cabaret Sauvignon, he said.

"There's a lot at stake, there's the potential of losing our home again," said Manning, who lost his Santa Rosa home to a 2017 fire.

But people are more prepared and aware of reality than ever, he said. More growers are also planting grapes that can be harvested earlier in the season, before October, which is historically when the worst wildfires can erupt, he said. This year, Chateau Diana planted Sauvignon Blanc grapes set to harvested in early September because they wanted to "be done with them before the fire season starts."

"As more fires happen, people are looking at what grapes they're going to plant for the future," Manning said. "That's a long term impact in terms of decisions people are making for what they plant."

One winery on the mountain side of Dry Creek Valley did have minimal fire impact to its grapes, Fremont said, but it was a very small stretch of vine that was burned. The fact that it's so early in the season and the grapes are still young, green and hard contributed to wineries being spared from potentially worse damage, she said.

Wineries escape unscathed by Tuesday

Overall, first responders and Mother Nature's whims meant that a potential catastrophe was averted Sunday night and Monday, Fremont said.

Winds shifted Sunday night, she said, and firefighters were able to rapidly address the fire and prevent it from reaching wineries. In a worst case scenario, an entire crop of grapes − known as an annual vintage − could be destroyed by a fire, or smoke could negatively impact the taste of wine grapes, causing the wine produced to have what's known as smoke taint, Fremont said.

That has been avoided, she said, adding that the quick and heroic efforts of first responders saved the entire Dry Creek Valley from what could have easily become a major crisis.

Manning agreed: "They show up for us on our worst days," he said, referring to firefighters and other responders.

One firefighter was injured Monday, as emergency responders further contained the fire. By Tuesday, the fire - which is burning about 1,200 acres - was 40% contained, according to Cal Fire.

A firefighter watches a prescribed burn as the Max Fire burns in Lancaster, California.
A firefighter watches a prescribed burn as the Max Fire burns in Lancaster, California.

2 fires converge on Ruidoso

Two wildfires that began earlier this week on either side of Ruidoso, New Mexico, are converging on the village located on tribal lands in southern New Mexico, leading thousands to evacuate.

The fires are like a "pair of tongs," New Mexico Forestry Spokesperson George Ducker told CNN this week.

By early Monday evening, the flames damaged multiple structures, states the New Mexico Forestry Division, but how many remains unknown.

The Village of Ruidoso is demanding people leave immediately.

"Please do not try to gather belongings or protect your home - GO NOW," the Village of Ruidoso said in a post on X early Tuesday morning.

Wildfire outside Los Angeles burns 15k acres

The Post Fire burning outside Los Angeles is the largest active wildfire in California, burning an estimated 15,600 acres, according to Cal Fire. The next largest California fire, in Colusa County, is burning 10,000 acres.

The fire, which is burning in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, has been hard to control because the blaze is in steep, hard-to-reach areas, Cal Fire said. Weather conditions are also making the fire challenging to contain, officials said.

Winds are leading to heavy smoke that could hamper visibility for motorists on Interstate-5, officials warned, and critical infrastructure like power lines, dams, and oil pipelines are at risk from the wildfire.

Contributing: Anthony Robledo, Julia Gomez

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: California wildfires force evacuations, worry in wine country