• Mon. Apr 12th, 2021


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In California’s Wine Country, a Familiar Threat of Smoke and Flame

NAPA, Calif. — If it were not for the thick blanket of smoke hanging low in the cloudy afternoon sky, there would be no way to tell that anything was amiss in downtown Napa on Saturday.

Shoppers browsed boutique clothing stores, families slurped noodles in a plaza, couples sipped wine on outdoor patios and the popular Oxbow Public Market was bustling — even as a nearby series of wildfires ballooned into the third-largest conflagration in California history.

“It’s starting to feel like business as usual,” said Hilary Olsen, who was eating lunch with a friend in nearby Yountville. “We almost check fires this time of year like people check tides to go surfing.”

Higher temperatures, winds and lightning strikes that could spark new wildfires were expected on Sunday in an already dry Northern California. Firefighters made some progress on Saturday, with cooler temperatures and humidity, but Sunday’s weather threatened to erase it. Officials told residents in at-risk areas, like Santa Cruz, on the coast, to prepare to flee at any moment with “go bags.”

“Bracing for more lightning,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Chief Thom Porter tweeted.

Evacuations were also ordered at the edges of Silicon Valley in Fremont in Alameda County.

The massive wildfires raging across Northern California have scorched more than one million acres and forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In wine country, the L.N.U. Lightning Complex has spread to 341,243 acres throughout five counties, including Napa and Sonoma Counties.

But locals seemed unfazed on Saturday afternoon, expressing a weary acceptance: We’re used to this.

“It’s the new normal — what next?” said Bulah Cartwright, the manager of Inti, a clothing and jewelry store in Napa. “We’ve had earthquakes, fires, flooding. It’s exhausting, but we’ll get through. We’ve gotten through worse.”

Wine country residents are well aware of the perils posed by wildfires. The Tubbs Fire swept through the area in 2017, devastating the town of Santa Rosa and killing 22 people. Last year’s Kincade Fire destroyed hundreds of buildings, including much of the Soda Rock winery in Healdsburg.

But shop owners and locals said on Saturday that they were more concerned that the smoke and flames might drive away the tourists upon which the region relies.

“Business has been slow, obviously,” said Thea Witsil, the owner of Wildcat Vintage Clothing in Napa. It might seem busy on a Saturday, she said, but “come here in the middle of the week, it’s a completely different story.”

Many tourists, though, were also undeterred by the persistent fumes that blew through Napa Valley towns and partially obscured nearby hills.

“We feel bad doing all this nice stuff when people are having to evacuate and lose their homes, but at the same time, if we cancel, we leave a lot of them as employees in the dust,” said Daniel, who was visiting Yountville from Los Angeles for his birthday and declined to provide his last name. “I feel like if Covid’s taught us anything, you have got to try to enjoy things and work around life as you can.”

Though many of the region’s more rural wineries remain open, some have been forced to evacuate and some are concerned about their grapes. The 2017 blazes largely spared the valuable vineyards themselves, but grapes that were still on the vine absorbed smoke taint that ruined the wine, giving it an ashy taste.

Credit…Ian C. Bates for The New York Times

Wineries that are still open have introduced pandemic-era rules for their tastings: keeping guests outside, ensuring they remain socially distanced and requiring them to wear masks when not drinking.

Jon Ruel, the chief executive of the Trefethen Family Vineyards winery, located between Napa and Yountville, said he was not concerned about this year’s grape crop, as long as smoke does not hover over Napa Valley for a sustained period. If the fires stay mostly in the hills, he said, the chance of smoke contamination is low.

“I’m calm,” Mr. Ruel said. “Every year represents challenges.”

On Washington Street, tiny Yountville’s main drag, the upscale restaurants and wineries were packed, and tourists braved the 94-degree heat to line up outside the Bouchon Bakery, spaced six feet apart. Ms. Olsen, a Marin County resident, sat outside a restaurant with her friend from Napa, Francein Hansen, as they reflected on how wildfires have become synonymous with life in California.

“There’s monsoons in Arizona. There’s hurricanes in Hawaii,” Ms. Hansen said. “You’ve got to pick your natural disaster.”