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LNU Lightning Complex: Raging Wildfires Destroy At Least 600 Homes In Napa, Sonoma And Solano Counties

HEALDSBURG (CBS SF/AP) -- Thousands of residents forced to flee their wine country homes as the flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires closed in on their neighborhoods continued their exodus back home Monday, hopeful to find their houses still standing and their life possessions untouched.

The latest evacuation order downgraded to an advisory as of 4 p.m. Monday was in Yolo County along the eastern edge of the fire. The advisory applies to areas of Zone 1 and Zone 2. The current advisory for Zone 3 was lifted for all the zone's residents (Learn More). Earlier Monday, evacuation warnings were lifted for areas of Colusa County.

Monday, Cal Fire officials released a detailed breakdown of the devastating toll the fire complex has taken. At least 274 homes were razed in Napa County, 268 in Solano County, and 118 in Sonoma County.

There has also been a human toll. Five people -- three in Napa County, two in Solano County near Vacaville -- have died while four other civilians have been injured.

CONTINUING COVERAGE: Latest on California Wildfires

And the battle with the flames continued Monday. The complex was only 63 percent contained and has burned 375,209 acres -- the state's third-largest wildfire outbreak in history. More than 2,800 firefighters were on the lines of the massive complex.

"Firefighters worked to control flare-ups in the interior islands of the fire which pose a threat," Cal Fire officials said in a Monday morning news release. "Dry weather continues with hotter than usual temperatures this week. Crews will work to mitigate additional fire growth in the North and East areas of the complex."

Several fires formed the complex -- Hennessey has been combined with Gamble, Green, Aetna, Markley, Spanish, Morgan and Round blazes. The Walbridge was combined the Meyers. The Hennessey Fire was at 317,909 acres and 62% contained. The Walbridge Fire was at 54,940 acres and 64% contained.

Structures have been destroyed or damaged in Lake, Solano, Yolo, Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties.

For the billion-dollar wine industry, the fire complex has combined with the COVID-19 outbreak to present significant fiscal challenges this year.

With an early harvest already underway, the fire complex raging a few miles west of John Bucher's ranch near Healdsburg last week added new urgency to getting his pinot noir grapes off the vine. If flames didn't do any damage to the delicate fruit, ash and smoke certainly could.

Bucher hired an extra crew, and they finished the task before dawn Wednesday in the quaint wine country destination of Healdsburg, remarkably early in the year for a grape that is often not harvested until the end of September.

"It was just a race to get it done," Bucher said, his voice hoarse after three days of almost no sleep and working in occasionally smoky conditions.

In three of the past four years, major wildfires have burned in Napa and Sonoma counties, charring vineyards, burning down a historic winery and sending plumes of smoke above the neatly tended rows of vines rolling across scenic hills.

While the majority of vineyards, winemaking facilities and tasting rooms that lure tourists from around the world have escaped damage, the perception of the area being on fire yet again has not helped business. Add restrictions on tastings and dining during the coronavirus pandemic, and winemakers say they are reeling.

"This year, you throw COVID on it, and what did we do to deserve this?" said Corey Beck, CEO and winemaking chief at Francis Ford Coppola Winery. "We really hurt more from the lack of tourists. That has been our Achilles' heel during this time."

Lightning-sparked wildfires west of Sonoma County and east of Napa two weeks ago coincided with the start of the harvest for some grape varieties. That's much earlier than devastating fires last year and in 2017 that erupted in October, when nearly all the grapes were off the vine and in the process of being converted to wine.

The early fires pose a threat if they persist and heavy smoke blankets the region for several days before grapes are picked. That can lead to "smoke taint," an undesirable burnt taste in wine made from grapes with skins permeated by smoke.

While Napa and Sonoma counties produce only about 10% of the state's wine, they have an outsized influence on California's position as the nation's leading wine producer. The neighboring counties have a combination of chic and rustic wineries — from chateau-style estates to those offering tastings in barns — and are the best known among California's many wine regions. The grapes grown there have the highest value.

Fires led to evacuation orders for some vineyards and closed down wineries that had pivoted to offering outdoor tastings and dining to meet state regulations during the pandemic.

While fires in recent years hurt tourism as smoke cast a pall over the verdant valleys bisected by rivers and surrounded by forested hillsides, most tasting rooms remained open and tourists still came.

But the landscape changed this year.

"You can't sit inside because of the pandemic, and you can't sit outside because of the smoke," said Janet Tupper of Napa, who runs Mercantile 12, a wholesale business that sells wine country-themed gifts, such as T-shirts, tea towels, tote bags and wine accessories, to gift shops and tasting rooms.

While large wine producers that sell to grocery chains and others with robust online sales have thrived during widespread business closures during the pandemic, wineries that sell high-end wines to restaurants and those that rely on tourists have suffered.

Given the large tourism losses since businesses shut down in March as COVID-19 spread, the impact of wildfires will be negligible in comparison, said James Lapsley, a researcher at the University of California's Agricultural Issues Center and a winemaker.

Vineyards have been largely resilient to fire because they generally don't burn and serve as firebreaks, Lapsley said. The bigger threat now is the possibility of smoke damage.

Some wineries that don't have their own vineyards are opting out of buying some grapes this year because the risk is too great that a vintage could be spoiled by smoke, said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

That creates a ripple effect in the economy that leads to fewer harvesting jobs and less wine to sell. While crop insurance provides some protection for growers, it's never enough to recoup the loss, Tesconi said.

Farmers, who are accustomed to coping with drought, flooding and labor shortages, now have to add wildfire to the challenges they face. When the Walbridge Fire broke out two weeks ago, part of the LNU Lightning Complex of fires around wine country, the Farm Bureau was holding a fire training program for members.

"It's almost like we've accepted that these situations are happening way too often in Sonoma County," Tesconi said. "The devastation that wildfire can bring unexpectedly in a short period of time is more of a concern because you just have no control over it."

Because of frost early in the year, cold temperatures in May and then extreme heat in August that threatened to shrivel grapes on the vine, Bucher had already begun to harvest his pinot noir fruit a few days before the fire ignited.

Bucher produces his own wine but also sells to 15 other winemakers. They were relying on his crop and became concerned as the fire burned and sometimes sent heavy smoke over his vineyards.

With extra workers, they completed the harvest in 12 days instead of the typical three to four weeks. Preliminary results show there is very little smoke taint, but he won't know until he can taste the wine after fermentation.

© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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