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California wine country firefight intensifies for fifth day

More than 17,000 fire personnel remain on the front lines of two dozen major wildfires

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The Castello Di Amorosa winery, razed by the Glass Fire in Calistoga, a town known for its hot springs, mud baths and wine-tasting rooms.

Calistoga

CALIFORNIA firefighters, coping with limited resources and worsening weather, struggled for a fifth day on Thursday to subdue flames menacing the famed Napa Valley wine region, while major progress was reported against a separate, deadly blaze in the Cascades.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said more than 17,000 fire personnel remained on the front lines of two dozen major wildfires across the state, with over 96,000 residents under evacuation orders.

Roughly half of those evacuees have been displaced by a fast-spreading blaze dubbed the Glass Fire, which erupted on Sunday near the Napa Valley resort of Calistoga, some 120 km north of San Francisco, then spread into neighbouring Sonoma county.

After a brief respite from fierce gusts that had fanned early growth of the blaze, fire crews on Thursday faced a return of strong winds, combined with above-normal heat and extremely low humidity, prompting red-flag warnings of heightened wildfire risks.

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The incendiary weather, supercharging fuel beds overgrown with tinder-dry grass and scrub, is expected to challenge firefighters through the weekend, as they battle to defend Napa Valley's homes and wineries in the middle of its harvest season.

"It's going to be a big firefight for us in the next 36 hours," Cal Fire operations section chief Mark Brunton told a late-morning briefing.

He added that commanders were forced to make do with "a limited amount of resources" due to competing demands for fire personnel throughout the state.

As at Thursday, firefighters have managed to carve firm containment lines around just 5 per cent of the Glass Fire perimeter, which has grown to encompass nearly 23,000 hectares.

By contrast, Cal Fire reported making significant headway against a slightly smaller blaze, the Zogg Fire about 322 km to the north in the foothills of the Cascade range, with containment increasing there to 26 per cent, up from 9 per cent a day earlier.

The Zogg fire, which has destroyed nearly 150 buildings near the town of Redding, has claimed four lives, raising to 30 the number of people killed since mid-August, in what now ranks as the worst California wildfire season on record in terms of acreage incinerated.

No serious injuries or deaths have been reported so far in the Glass Fire, but 52,000 people were under evacuation orders or warnings in Napa and Sonoma counties, Cal Fire said.

Of particular concern, Chief Brunton said, were areas in and around Calistoga, a town of 5,300 residents known for its hot springs, mud baths and wine tasting rooms, but vacated by evacuation orders on Monday.

He said several nearby communities, including Angwin, Pope Valley and Oakville, as well as various wineries and properties along the valley floor, were in harm's way if resurgent winds continue to spread flames in their direction.

The Glass Fire has already destroyed at least 248 homes and other structures, including the mansion-like Chateau Boswell winery and a farmhouse containing fermentation, bottling and storage facilities at the landmark Castello di Amorosa winery. That winery's main castle-like building was itself unscathed.

Wine industry officials say the longer-term consequence of the Glass Fire and a spate of other blazes that came before it, is likely to be a 2020 vintage of diminished volume due to grapes spoiled by heavy exposure to smoke. REUTERS

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