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Napa County announces state will provide additional helicopter, firefighters for next wildfire season

Napa County announces state will provide additional helicopter, firefighters for next wildfire season

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Napa Valley wildfires in 2020

Smoke rose over a vineyard as the Glass Fire burned Sept. 28 in Calistoga. Napa County has announced the fortification of state firefighting support, including an additional Cal Fire helicopter and 46 firefighters, in response to record levels of local damage from two major wildfires in 2020.

Following a summer of historic wildfires that ripped through Northern California, Napa County is working with Cal Fire to receive the services of a firefighting helicopter and nearly four dozen state firefighters for this year’s fire season, officials have announced.

A helicopter capable of dropping 1,000 gallons of water at a time will bolster firefighting resources in the county, as well as 46 people who will staff a 24-hour fire crew, county officials said in a news release Saturday. The additions represent about a $3 million investment, according to Napa County.

The moves follow a summer in which the Hennessey and Glass fires wreaked unprecedented damage to Napa County’s heavily wooded northern tracts, spreading to nearly half the county’s land area and destroying hundreds of homes in the Lake Berryessa and Deer Park areas. Wine grape losses caused by smoke taint from the Hennessey Fire, triggered by an August lightning storm, also were blamed for contributing to a 36% fall-off in grape production from Napa and Sonoma counties.

“This investment by the State is a testament to the longstanding cooperative agreement between Napa County and Cal Fire,” the agency’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa Unit chief Shana Jones said in the statement. “… These additional resources are a welcome addition to our joint efforts as we work to combat more extreme wildfires in the face of our changing climate.”

Leaders with Napa County Fire and Cal Fire’s aviation unit are working on where to place the additional helicopter assigned to Napa County, officials said in the Saturday statement.

In addition to the helicopter and crew members to be assigned to Napa County, Cal Fire also will base another 1,000-gallon helicopter at its Boggs Mountain base in Lake County in time for this year’s wildfire season, according to Napa County Fire Chief Geoff Belyea. That aircraft will be able to reach Napa County airspace in less than five minutes once airborne, he said in the Saturday announcement.

Despite the promise of stronger backup from California, advocates of a plan to base two small fixed-wing firefighting planes in Napa County said Sunday their proposal remains as critical to local safety as ever.

The environmental coalition Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture seeks to have a pair of Fire Boss single-engine aircraft on local standby this year, with each craft able to scoop 800 gallons of water at a time from Lake Berryessa or Lake Hennessey and drop repeated payloads on a wildfire. The group is offering to rent the planes from a private contractor for six months and raise the $1.5 million fee if it can work out an agreement with Cal Fire.

“We feel that the Fire Boss is just another tool we need to use, and we need to use it now,” said Randy Dunn, founder of Dunn Vineyards in Howell Mountain and a member of the Growers/Vintners group, who predicted fixed-wing planes would be both cheaper to operate and quicker into the air than helicopters. “… If we have another fire, or smoke like we’ve had, the wine industry is going to be severely damaged even more than it was, and it will lead to huge economic downturns, huger than what we have now.”

Any resistance to the officer by the state or county is “just boneheaded thinking,” added Mike Hackett, another Growers/Vintners member who also lives at Howell Mountain. “We can get two aircraft that can do six or seven runs in the first hour and just keep going. A helicopter is expensive to operate and slow to get going.

“Why choose second best? It’s just boneheaded. We can do much, much better and we can do it free (to the county). It’s just outrageous that it’s not happening. There isn’t a citizen in Napa County that’s opposed to having Fire Boss planes parked full time. Everyone in county wants it, but a boneheaded bureaucracy is opposing it. It’s inexcusable; people should stand up and holler on this one.”

The announcement of increased wildfire protection comes on the eve of a firefighting summit announced for Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors. A community wildfire prevention plan, fire hazard abatement, building code updates, a software alert system for evacuations, early detection system improvements, and public education are among the topics to be covered, according to County Executive Officer Minh Tran.

WATCH NOW: NAPA COUNTY WILDFIRES TAKE TOLL ON WINE COUNTRY LANDSCAPE

Thousands of fire-damaged trees are being removed at a cost of millions of dollars in the wake of Napa County wildfires.

PHOTOS: IMAGES FROM THE GLASS FIRE NEAR ST. HELENA

NAPA’S BURNING PROBLEM: A REGISTER STORY SERIES

Napa's Burning Problem: A Napa Valley Register series taking an in-depth look at Napa County's vulnerability to wildfires

The Napa Valley Register takes an in-depth look at Napa County's vulnerability to wildfires in this four-part series.

You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or hyune@napanews.com

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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