Updated 7/24: Wildfires scorch rural landscapes around state


Issue Date: July 19, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman
The fire started July 6 and burned nearly 29,000 acres in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties before being nearly contained last weekend. The cause is under investigation.
Photo/Zack Warburg
A vegetable field near Santa Maria, stands before hillsides blackened by the Alamo.
Photo/Jeff Frey
The Whittier Fire burns in the Santa Barbara County hills last week. The fire started July 8 near Lake Cachuma and prompted evacuations near Goleta. As of Monday, containment stood at 49 percent.
Photo/Zack Warburg

Wildfire season in California is off to an ugly start, with high-profile fires keeping crews busy up and down the state. One fire in particular, the Detwiler Fire in Mariposa County, has burned more than 76,000 acres and prompted Farm Bureaus in four neighboring counties to band together in a call to action.

As of 7:30 a.m. Monday, the Detwiler Fire had consumed 76,500 acres, according to Cal Fire. Sixty-three homes and 67 other structures have been destroyed. Extensive evacuation orders have been in place, but Cal Fire has been able to lift some of them. One such order, for the entire town of Mariposa, was lifted at noon Friday; others were lifted Sunday afternoon as containment rose to 50 percent.

The fire, which started July 16 in Hunters Valley, is threatening the communities of Hunters Valley, Bear Valley, Catheys Valley, Mormon Bar, Mariposa, Mount Bullion, Yaqui Gulch/Aqua Fria and Hornitos, according to Cal Fire.

In response to the blaze, the Merced, Madera, Stanislaus and Tuolumne County Farm Bureaus have issued calls to action to their members.

Breanne Ramos, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau, said her outfit is helping in two ways.

"Anybody that can haul and/or house livestock – it doesn't have to be both; it can be one or the other," Ramos said. "We're also looking for those that can donate, whether it be hay for livestock, or dog food. It can also go into water, toothpaste, clothes, blankets – all that normal, necessary things that people would need when they have evacuated in a rushed environment."

To this end, the Merced County Farm Bureau is drawing up a list of members who can assist farmers and ranchers in Mariposa County who have to move animals. Ramos said she's also working with the Red Cross and other emergency responders.

Ramos' Madera County counterpart, Christina Beckstead, said her bureau owns a livestock auction yard in Madera, which has been made available for evacuated cattle and other animals. The yard is leased to Producers Livestock.

"They've got the ability to take in livestock, up to 500-600 head," Beckstead said.

As with the others, the Madera County Farm Bureau is collecting supplies such as water, clothing and feed.

"We have several of our members within Madera that have reached out that have space, whether it's pasture, grazing land, or just some corrals available to house animals," Beckstead said. "Some of our local feed stores have reached out, and they're taking some feed up to Coarsegold, where we've got Coarsegold Rodeo Grounds. They've got animals that are being housed there right now, too."

Mariposa County cattle rancher Tony Toso, who serves as CFBF's second vice president, said Monday morning that he and his family were doing better.

"Still no power at my place, but should be soon," Toso said in an e-mail Monday. "Some of the neighbors are back up and running. My best guesstimates are that we lost about 660 acres of grazing land and the fire at least touched, but did not necessarily ruin or destroy, about 34,000 linear feet of fence. I think we look better on the fencing than what we thought we would have."

Toso said his family did not lose any cattle, although he heard of a neighbor who lost 19 head of cows.

"The FSA (Farm Service Agency) is readying with assistance for losses in the area and our local Farm Bureau has been working with Merced Farm Bureau on relief efforts," Toso said. "Merced Farm Bureau (especially Breanne Ramos) has been a trooper and deserves a ton of credit for helping out. She stayed open all weekend to receive donations." Toso also credited the Madera, Stanislaus and Tuolumne County Farm Bureaus for their help.

Ramos said Monday morning that other donation centers were active as well but some were overloaded.

"We are currently working with a number of agencies in staging the collected items in locations in Mariposa County where it will benefit those affected," Ramos said. "We had an outpouring of support from our members and the community in making this happen, and we could not be more appreciative."

County Farm Bureau offices can be reached as follows:

MERCED COUNTY: (209) 723-3001 or info@mercedfarmbureau.org

MADERA COUNTY: (559) 674-8871 or fbmadera@outlook.com

STANISLAUS COUNTY: (209) 522-7278 or programs@stanfarmbureau.org

TUOLUMNE COUNTY: (209) 533-8386 or tucofarmbureau@gmail.com

The Farm Service Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, can be reached at https://www.fsa.usda.gov/.

Toso jumped into action the day the fire started.

"We went up to take a look at it (July 16)," Toso said. "It was burning pretty bad on the north end of Lake McClure.

"We had 20 cows on a field close by where that fire was," Toso said. "We made the decision to get back, get on our horses and go get them, which was a good decision because not long after that, that whole field went up in smoke."

Toso said he was able to get the cattle home and gathered in a protected area along with the horses. The last of the cattle were penned around 2:30 a.m. July 17, he said.

"About 3 o'clock, the fire finally got up next to the house," Toso said, "and we were just doing what we could to make sure none of the buildings caught on fire."

Elsewhere in California:

The Alamo Fire had consumed 28,867 acres in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties but was fully contained as of Wednesday, according to Cal Fire.

Wes Hagen, winemaker for J. Wilkes Wines in Santa Maria, said the Alamo Fire posed its biggest threat to vineyards on the Tepsusquet Bench in the valley. These were saved from fire and smoke damage, and he said he's grateful for the people who made that happen.

"It was just absolutely miraculous what Cal Fire and everyone from Southern, Central and Northern California did for us," Hagen said. "The fact that no vineyard acreage was lost, that really we're not seeing nearly as much ash within the vineyards as we expected, I think we really dodged a bullet as far as the potential for fire damage and smoke taint in the 2017 vintage."

Michael Brughelli, who also works in the valley, could tell from a long way off that the Alamo Fire would be a problem.

"On (July 7), I was in Paso Robles, driving south on 101, and I saw the header of smoke from San Luis Obispo, which is not close to where the vineyards are in Santa Maria," said Brughelli, director of sales for Bien Nacido Vineyards and Solomon Hills Vineyards, which sell grapes throughout California and in Oregon.

When he got home, he and the vineyard crews made plans to protect the grapes.

"We worked through the night," Brughelli said. "We maintained fire lines that we had already put into place for preventive measures, and we also cut new fire lines. And the fire crept over the hills and came down relatively close to our blocks, but we had no damage: no burned vines, no apparent smoke taint or ash on the vines. It ended up that all that work paid off."

With the fire nearly contained, it's back to business.

"If our clients request that we conduct a smoke taint test, we're happy to," he said. "We have full confidence that there will not be any issues there, because the smoke did carry up and away from the ranch."

For smoke taint to show up in the grapes, Brughelli said, three conditions need to be present: weeks of direct smoke contact, at least one week of ash contact, and grapes that are nearly ready to harvest. Brughelli said harvest time for his vineyards remains six to eight weeks away.

Hagen said wildfires several years earlier had led to smoke issues in grapes.

"What we saw in those lines was an aroma not unlike a campfire," Hagen said. "Even though some people really enjoy the smell of a campfire and everything, it's certainly not part of the typicity of these wines."

Washing the grapes is tricky, Hagen said, and generally a last resort. Besides, Mother Nature likely will take care of it.

"As windy and foggy as everything else is in this valley, they'll be coated with fog, dried, coated with fog almost every night until harvest," he said. "Because we have 15-20 mile per hour winds on a constant basis, that's going to clean the grapes."

Jeff Frey, a vineyard manager who runs Frey Farming in Santa Barbara County, described his operation as "kind of wait and see."

"We sell grapes to a lot of different wineries, and I've gotten calls from a lot of winemakers," Frey said. "I get stuff all over the board. Some will get really worried about the smoke taint. Others are saying, 'They're not that ripe. It won't matter.'"

Farther east in Santa Barbara County, the Whittier Fire continued to burn near Lake Cachuma, north of Goleta. The U.S. Forest Service reported 18,430 acres burned as of Monday morning, with containment at 87 percent. No agricultural losses attributable to this fire have yet been reported.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.