A wildfire has ripped through one of Los Angeles’s wealthiest neighbourhoods and scorched part of a winery owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Flames fanned by strong winds reached a temperature-controlled wine storage shed on the mogul’s Moraga Vineyards estate on Wednesday after destroying at least six properties in Bel-Air and threatening hundreds more.
The so-called Skirball fire is one of multiple wildfires that flared across southern California this week, forcing thousands to flee and smothering cities in smoke which is expected to last several more days.
Firefighters backed by helicopters were unable to stop flames reaching Murdoch’s estate, a 2.8 hectare property he bought for $28.8m in 2013 after spotting an advert in the property section of the Wall Street Journal, which he owns.
The estate has been evacuated. The house appeared undamaged on Wednesday night but the blaze was still largely out of control. It’s unclear how much wine was lost in the storage shed which burned.
“We are monitoring the situation as closely as we can and are grateful for the efforts of all the first responders,” Murdoch said in a statement. “Some of our neighbors have suffered heavy losses and our thoughts and prayers are with them at this time.”
California’s fire season usually ends in November but the hottest summer on record and delayed rains have left the region tinder-dry into December. Some scientists have linked the conditions to climate change.
“This fire is big, fast, and furious. But the most striking thing about its vast size, bewildering speed, destructive power is that this fire blew up in December. Repeat: December,” said Char Miller, a Pomona college professor of environmental analysis and expert on wildfires. “This is a sign that the fire season is lengthening as the drought in southern California deepens. That the fire season is intensifying in response to climate change.”
Murdoch, 86, has ridiculed climate change as “alarmist nonsense”, a scepticism echoed in his media empire.
Some social media commentators seized on the fire as comeuppance and juxtaposed images of the blaze with a 2011 tweet in which the mogul mocked global warming.
Just flying over N Atlantic 300 miles of ice. Global warming! pic.twitter.com/loXwe7lwtK— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) February 27, 2015
Earlier this year the estate’s winemaker, Scott Rich, told the Guardian climate change was aiding its production of sauvignon blanc and a cabernet-merlot dominant blend.
“We’re finishing harvest a little bit earlier than we used to,” he said in May. “It’s been a positive thing. We don’t get rained on. Rain can ruin everything for us.”
Asked if they had discussed the impact of a warming planet on the vineyard with his boss Rich said: “I have not. My general feeling about people’s beliefs is that I’m not going to change them regardless of the discussion. I haven’t broached it with him.”
The property resembles rural Tuscany but nestled amid the mega-mansions of Bel-Air, a wealthy neighbourhood in the Santa Monica mountains just west of Los Angeles.
Murdoch bought the estate, boasting steep vine-lined slopes and a 1920s Mediterranean-style house with nine bathrooms and 11 bedrooms, as a home for when he and wife, Jerry Hall, visit the US west coast.
A previous owner, Victor Fleming, the director of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, used to host Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Ingrid Bergman and other Hollywood illuminati.
Murdoch called the winery a personal fascination as well as a business. “I try to help out on the property whenever I can and am looking forward to doing so even more in the future,” he told the Guardian via email in May.
“This year I’m hoping to be there for the harvest. I’m in contact with the staff almost daily and very aware of what is going on both in the vineyard and with regard to sales.”
Asked about the estate manager’s belief in climate change, Murdoch responded: “I’m not a climate denier. Climate is always changing. We just had years of drought in California. Now we’re having a lot of rain.”