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October a tinderbox month for North American woodland fires

Sonoma and Napa Valley fires, image:

A number of fires are raging in the Napa and Sonoma Valley areas, north of San Francisco, with at least 10 people reported killed.

In the past decade, wildfires have killed and injured hundreds of firefighters in the US, scorched more than 5-million acres of private, state and federal land and cost billions of dollars.

The US Forest Service’s fire prevention budget serves as a real example of the worsening situation.

In 1999 fire prevention made up 14% of the Forest Service budget, by 2015 it was 50%. That’s because people are moving into fire-hazard areas in larger numbers and because fires are becoming a major challenge to the service generally.

The US fire season is now 60-80 days longer than historic averages, worsened by drought, invasive species and human development.

But the US is not alone. In July 2017 Canada experienced its worst fires in living memory with almost 40,000 people forced to flee their homes in British Columbia.

At one stage there were 162 fires across the province northeast of Vancouver and the cost of wildfires was estimated at 188,000 hectares and cost more than $71m for this year.

That’s not the only blaze that has recently caused major damage in Canada.

In 2016, 80,000 people in Fort McMurray, Alberta province, fled massive fires. Some of the cities buildings were damaged and large areas of Alberta and Sasketchewan were at risk.

While the immediate danger is the flames and smoke, the long-term effect is economic. In California, there’re signs that the damage to vineyards may be extensive.

California’s wine industry drew more than 23-million tourists in 2016 and a windfall of $34m in retail value to local vintners. The highest-quality wine is grown in Napa and Sonoma Valley.

Fires reported across California October 2017. Courtesy

A spokesperson for the Napa Valley Grapegrowers said: “We are all in shock and trying to help our fellow growers and neighbours where we can.”

Most of the Sonoma crop has been harvested, but there are wine grapes to be picked over the next two weeks, according to Sonoma County Winegrowers spokesperson Karissa Kruse.

But the possible danger to a future crop is real with vines taking an average of three years to produce a crop that can be used for high-quality wines.

The wildfires had spread to Redwood Valley overnight and Calfire website has warned residents that more evacuations are likely. Extreme weather conditions with high temperatures and dry conditions coupled with high winds has led to fears the fires may spread further.

The previously most destructive fire in the Napa and Sonoma Valley area was in September 2015 when four people died and 1,200 buildings were torched in what became known as the "Valley Fire".

More than 76,000 acres of vineyards, woodlands and bush were burned in that blaze.

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