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SLO County vineyards act now to protect grapes from wildfires

How to prepare for and avoid starting wildfires in SLO County

Cal Fire Deputy Chief Eric Cleveland of San Luis Obispo offers a few tips for ranch fire preparedness and talks about a mapping effort on Santa Margarita Ranch.
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Cal Fire Deputy Chief Eric Cleveland of San Luis Obispo offers a few tips for ranch fire preparedness and talks about a mapping effort on Santa Margarita Ranch.

With wildfires igniting around the county in recent weeks—and some in Santa Maria forcing vineyard owners to take matters into their own hands—wineries have been taking steps to protect their precious crops.

Not far from a few recent outbreaks, Santa Margarita Ranch, home to Ancient Peaks Winery’s vineyards, is nestled against the Cuesta Grade and surrounded by acres of forestland.

Concerned about fire threats from the grassy front side of the grade, owners Doug Filipponi and Karl Wittstrom directed the ranch’s cattle herd to graze in the mountain fields, providing “low-impact fuel management,” said spokesman Sean Weir. (Rob Rossi also is a part-owner).

They’ve also been working with Cal Fire to maintain fire roads and ensure quick access through the ranch and onto the grade—steps that paid off recently when a fire broke out.

“Karl helped lead the crews up to the top of the ranch, where they were able to get a quick handle on it,” Weir said.

The ranch owners also allow Cal Fire to use their airstrip and water reservoirs to fight any fires in the area and are planning to install flags along the route up the grade to ensure future access is quick and easy.

But the threat of fire in recent years has forced them to step up routine maintenance, clearing all vegetation around power poles, water troughs and tanks, removing fallen trees, trimming low-hanging limbs, inspecting fire roads monthly and doing some grading work.

This video taken July 31, 2017, shows a Cal Fire plane swoop in and unload retardant on a grass fire along West Pozo Road. According to Karl Wittstrom, one of the owners of Santa Margarita Ranch, Cal Fire "had an amazing response time and this bom

It’s hard to put a firm figure on the mitigation measures, Weir said, estimating the ranch spends about $50,000 to $75,000 each year on such extra steps—an amount that “pales in comparison to what it costs to put out even a small forest fire,” he said.

It’s a similar story at other area wineries.

At Justin Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles, one of the closest to last year’s Chimney Rock Fire, workers have been keeping brush cleared and grass mowed and ensuring water tanks are full, said Mark Carmel, director of corporate communications for The Wonderful Co., which owns the winery. They also keep fire extinguishers and shovels at all their vineyard properties and in all trucks.

Halter Ranch Vineyard sits on 2,000 acres of mostly open space and, like Ancient Peaks, rotates its cattle herds around pastures to keep potential fire fuel knocked down, vineyard manager Lucas Pope said. They’ve created roads up and down all the ridges and fire breaks throughout the property and last year invested in a water truck.

2 SM wineries
The recent Alamo Fire scorched hills close to vineyards. This photo was taken from Cambria Winery in Santa Maria. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

They, too, have a reservoir the Cal Fire helicopters can draw from and invite crews onto the property at least once a year to review maps and plans.

“We let them drive around and get familiar with the roads,” Pope said. But beyond these measures—plus keeping lots of fire extinguishers around—there’s not much more you can do to prevent a fire from breaking out, Pope said.

“You just hope the fire department gets there quickly,” he said.

Sally Buffalo writes about wine, beer and spirits. Reach her at sallybuffalo@gmail.com or on Twitter or Instagram @sallybuffalo.

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