Atlas Fire: Reality of Fires, Oaks, Vineyards and Napa’s Agricultural Future
By Igor Sill, Atlas Peak, Napa California
Almost three years after the devastating Atlas Peak firestorms, we begin to see our mountain landscape recovering and the once blackened oaks return to life on their own, essentially a re-birth.
Many woodland oaks survived the wildfires because they are a hearty, native hardwood species which have adapted to survive droughts and wildfires that have swept over Napa’s terrain for thousands of years.
The fires brought us an unpredictable but welcomed outcome. Today, Napa County has the greatest density of oak trees of any county in California. These oaks when combined with the beauty of vineyards are one of the defining features of Napa‘s scenery.
With the spring’s warmth, these reinvigorated oaks have thrown off pounds of acorns, showing their resiliency, adaptation and recovery to fire. Here at least, there will be no need to bring in new trees sprouted from acorns not native to this biota.
It’s been proven that fire directly promotes the establishment of oak seedlings by reducing competing understory vegetation, releasing needed soil nutrients and reducing numerous pathogens. Wildfire can also increase the regeneration of fire-adapted native species in the understory of oak woodlands while reducing the parasitic oak mistletoe.
Interestingly, Native Americans are thought to have set frequent fires in oak woodlands up until the 1800s so as to rejuvenate the land. We lost 27 oaks due to the fires on our Atlas Peak property. Today, I’ve counted well over 400 newly established healthy oak sprouts flourishing throughout the property, essentially “re-oaking” the property. A new, better post-fire era for Napa oak forests.
From a factual statistics point, oak woodlands and forests are not being eliminated within Napa County. According to David Morrison, Napa’s Director of Planning, Building & Environmental Services, nearly 42 percent of the county (or 213,000 acres) consists of oak woodlands, riparian forest, or conifer forests.
In comparison, only 13 percent of the county is used for farmland, and 6 percent is developed with urban uses. Trees cover more than twice as much land in Napa as agriculture and cities combined. The Conservation Regulations already require stream buffers and tree retention. Setbacks of 35 to 150 feet are mandated for vineyards, depending on the surrounding slopes.
Setbacks may also be applied to vineyard replanting and previously disturbed areas may be required to be re-vegetated. A minimum 60 percent of all tree canopies must be retained on any parcel where a vineyard is proposed. When biological studies are also applied, 90 percent of on-site trees are protected.
The amount of carbon absorbed by the average mature oak tree is 48 tons per year according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In comparison, cherry trees absorb approximately 20 tons of carbon per year.
So, oaks in general are incredibly important, both ecologically and economically. Nature has been lending us Napans a hand.
We all recognize that our Napa agriculture has a unique heritage. The 1968 agricultural preserve was passed by Napa’s then Board of Supervisors and later strengthened by a majority of voters to preserve, promote and protect agricultural land in Napa Valley for future generations.
The ordinance established agriculture as the “best use” of these lands and kept Napa from being overdeveloped. This was long before Napa County’s future as a prosperous wine country was assured, when many felt Napa Valley might go the way of urbanized Silicon Valley.
Napa County’s Ag Preserve was a visionary land-zoning ordinance, the first of its kind in the USA and, our farming legacy thrives today because of it, having become one of the most productive counties in the entire nation.
If governmental growth projections are correct, Napa Valley will remain a regional oasis of agriculture 50 years from now. With it, Napa’s vineyards have become the most regulated agricultural industry in California. The cost of compliance results in significant additional expense and time for us farmers, property owners as well as the County.
All farmers that I know in Napa, especially those in Atlas Peak, are tremendously diligent, responsible, eco-conscientious and concerned about always doing the right thing with their farms and surrounding lands.
It has become obvious that certifications of National Wildlife Federation, Fish Friendly Farming, CCOF and NapaGreen have become abundant and virtually posted everywhere, just note the number of vineyard signs attesting to prevention of water pollution, limited or total non-use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to protect our surrounding waterbodies, wild life, air quality and our oaks.
This is a voluntary, conscientious movement by Napa farmers to continue to “do the right thing” for Napa’s oaks, land and community, without the need for further excessive governmental bureaucratic involvement. Napa vintners wish to protect the continued presence of trees, plants, wildlife and their habitats.
Napa is well known for its outsized share of activists that have alarmed the community with deceptive and erroneous reporting of false information surrounding Napa’s long-term strategic plan. Let’s consider the science-based facts, and not alter, change or add restrictions to an already restrictive and functioning policy.
Stay safe, stay sequestered, stay healthy and appreciate our wonderful lands from inside our homes until this health crisis passes and heals us all.