Luxurious hotels reduced to rubble. Beloved wineries turned to ash. Fires so enormous they created their own wind.
The harsh realities of the recent conflagrations to hit Napa and Sonoma counties are almost too horrific to comprehend. Then, of course, there are the images—especially those of the former Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa—that showed some of the most beautiful countrysides in the United States looking like a nuclear fallout zone.
Authorities are still tabulating the devastation caused by fires that, at this writing, still rage in parts of California’s famous wine country. Three numbers stand out: 41 lives lost, some 6,000 homes and businesses destroyed, and more than $3 billion in damage.
On the ground, in communities up and down these fertile valleys, neighbors have lined up to help each other in inspiring and unprecedented ways: collecting donations, setting up assistance funds, and organizing chef-led community dinners, all free of charge. On a broader scale, however, Napa and Sonoma are going to need some major outside help to rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
This is where travelers enter the picture. “Our 20,000 tourism jobs are among small, locally owned businesses,” said Tim Zahner, interim CEO of Sonoma County Tourism. “We’re going to need our visitors now more than ever.”
Authorities haven’t settled on a timeline for recovery yet, but there’s no question that the 24 million travelers who explore the region each year will play a big role in driving those efforts. In the meantime, here are six suggestions for travelers who want to help:
1. Give regionally. Many local communities have set up their own assistance and recovery funds, but a handful of bigger efforts span the region. On the Sonoma side, the three largest include a fund set up by the Redwood Empire Food Bank, the Community Foundation of Sonoma County’s Resilience Fund, and the Redwood Credit Union’s North Bay Fire Relief Fund, which at last check had amassed more than $4 million. On the Napa side, check out the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund.
2. Spread the love. There are plenty of smaller—but equally worthy—charitable opportunities. To wit, Santa Rosa Junior College had some 50 members of its faculty and staff and more than 200 students lose their homes in the firestorm, and the Santa Rosa Junior College Fire Relief Fund aids these people directly.
3. Buy local wine, and plenty of it. If ever there was a time to show your love for the wines of Napa and Sonoma, it’s now. More than 20 wineries were destroyed or damaged during the fires, and a handful of unaffected wineries are organizing fund-raisers with chances to win prizes, including some pretty sensational vacation getaways. This one, from Reeve Wines, includes three nights at the palatial winery villa in the Dry Creek Valley.
4. Support the hotels that supported the community. In the aftermath of the fires, hotels on both sides of the Mayacamas Mountains offered free rooms for first responders and people who had lost everything. Among them: Senza and Harvest Inn on the Napa side; Astro Motel and Hotel Healdsburg on the Sonoma side.
5. Volunteer your time and talents. As recovery efforts get underway, undoubtedly there will be dozens of opportunities to pitch in and get involved with rebuilding. It’s still a bit early in the process to identify these efforts, but keep tabs on Sonoma County Tourism and Visit Napa Valley for more information. Another good resource: the Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership, which oversees volunteer efforts for Napa County in the event of a disaster.
6. Plan a visit. Perhaps the most valuable tip of all: Make plans to get to wine country between now and the 2018 harvest. Despite the fires, the majority of businesses in both Napa and Sonoma remain open; call ahead to find out how devastation from the fires might affect your vacation plans. And be patient: Until services in the area get back to normal, drive times between wineries and other sights may be longer than usual.