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Smoke behind the iconic Welcome sign

Smoke fills the air in the hills behind the iconic Welcome to Napa Valley sign on Highway 29.

Tom Thornton photo

In some important ways, the recent fire disaster was different than previous ones that have afflicted Napa County.

For one, it was physically more widespread. It affected every end of the county in some way and nowhere was completely safe until the firefighters contained the blazes.

It was also more widespread in terms of who it affected in the longer term. A great many more people lost homes than have done so in previous recent floods and earthquakes – almost 600 houses in Napa County alone.

But it also seemed to strike at people whose personal lives were far removed from the flames. To an extent even greater than the 2014 earthquake, it appears that the fires of 2017 created a local economic downtown, though it is hard to quantify yet.

Consider: For two weeks, the valley was wreathed in smoke most of the time, hardly conducive for tourism or even for locals trying to run errands or eat out. Major employers such as the NVUSD were closed, meaning businesses that rely on lunch traffic or who supply those facilities were largely without work.

Anyone who went out looking for lunch or even an open store in downtown Napa during those weeks knows what I mean.

The City of Calistoga was evacuated completely for nearly a week and was largely a ghost town the rest of the time. Even St. Helena, which was never under serious threat, was pretty much closed for business.

Many winery workers were unable to get to their jobs, even if their employers were not under threat.

Fortunately, some businesses had enough insurance or savings to pay their employees during the times they were closed.

Many, however, did not.

The problem is so real that the Napa Valley Community Foundation is directing a significant chunk of its relief aid not directly to people who lost their homes, but rather to workers deprived of a living during and immediately after the fire emergency.

The message was clear also during an interesting roundtable with vintners and grape growers this week, organized by the St. Helena Star.

They said customers and would-be tourists across the world saw dramatic photos and videos of whole neighborhoods burned to the ground. They are staying away because of a perception that the whole county, including its wine industry, was heavily damaged.

That is not the case. Mercifully few wineries suffered direct damage. The wine in the tanks and the grapes in the field seem to have suffered little damage. And except in a handful of spots, the vineyards themselves were not seriously scorched (one great secret of the grape industry is that vineyards don’t tend to burn, since they are well watered and free of dry underbrush).

“Don’t come back to help the wine business,” famed grape grower Andy Beckstoffer said, addressing the wider tourist market. “Come back to help the people.”

Help not just the people who lost their homes, he said, but also all those people who make our county work, for tourists and locals alike. Business owners and employees in all industries lost precious revenue during the emergency, which hit during the normally lucrative late harvest season, and they need business to pick up again as quickly as possible.

So do what you can to stimulate the economy. Let your friends and family know that Napa County, although bruised, is not destroyed. Let them know it’s OK to come back.

And for those of you who live here, remember to shop locally wherever you can.

It’s wonderful to donate to relief funds, but spending your money at home is another great way to help your neighbors and friends get back on their feet more quickly.

You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or

You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or



Sean has been editor of the Napa Valley Register since April of 2014. His previous credits include the Press Democrat, The Weekly Calistogan, The Washington Times and Time and People magazines.