For weeks, California’s renowned wine regions of Napa Valley and Sonoma have been blanketed in smoke as devastating wildfires rage across the northern part of the state, burning more than 245,000 acres and destroying thousands of homes. To help contain the wildfires, California called in additional resources from neighboring states as well as other countries including Mexico, Canada, and Australia, and more firefighters from Australia were deployed to the state in early October. According to Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott, Australian firefighters are at the ready throughout the state to help fight additional fires that might break out due to persistent high temperatures and dry conditions.
Australia and New Zealand have been key partners in helping combat wildfires in the United States for more than 50 years, mobilizing firefighters to the States during intense fire seasons in 2008 and 2015. US firefighters have also traveled to Australia, most recently in 2010 when a dozen American fire managers and 16 additional personnel were on site after widespread Catastrophic fire danger warnings.
In California, the fires will likely have the largest impact on the wine industry, which generates more than $34 billion dollars annually, even before accounting for the enormous wine tourism business. Many of the industry’s high-value wines are produced in Napa and Sonoma. Although the region produces only 10% of the state’s wine, it accounts for 35-40% of the total revenue.
Here too, Australia is providing substantial assistance: informing solutions and preventive measures to help the industry recover. While wildfires are uncommon in California’s wine valleys, brushfires are a frequent occurrence in the South Australian wine regions like the Yarra Valley. As a result, the Australian Wine Research Institute has become a leading source of information on how wildfires can affect grapes. California vinters are particularly concerned about what the Australians call “smoke taint,” where phenols in smoke are absorbed by grapes while on the vine and released during the fermentation process, altering the flavor of the wine. One paper estimated the impact of smoke taint from the Napa and Sonoma fires at more than $220 million.
Jake Howry is a Georgetown University Intern at the East-West Center