Learning extent of wildfire losses will take weeks

Issue Date: December 13, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman

The rash of late-autumn wildfires in Southern California has harmed avocados, forage and other crops, and killed or displaced livestock, but it will be weeks before the extent of agricultural losses will be known.

The Thomas Fire, which broke out Dec. 4 near Santa Paula, burned rapidly across hillsides all the way to Ventura—a distance of about a dozen miles—in "just a matter of hours," said John Krist, chief executive of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.

Driven by Santa Ana winds that "were just howling," he said, the fire "went right through a belt of avocado groves that stretches basically for miles between those two communities."

Because hillsides took the brunt of the fire and because avocados typically are planted in hilly areas, Krist estimated that hundreds of acres of avocado groves had been damaged or destroyed, and "the number's going to rise as we get into those canyons in the back areas and the hills."

Tom Bellamore, president of the California Avocado Commission in Irvine, said it remained impossible to estimate the degree of crop damage.

"We are slowly hearing about affected properties," he said. "The direction of the fire has changed several times, so properties that once seemed secure are now in some instances being threatened again."

Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales said a preliminary loss survey has begun, with a more detailed assessment to follow. That tally will take about a month, he said.

"Everything is anecdotal at this point," Gonzales said. "We believe that the avocados are affected the most significantly of all the crops."

Any groves destroyed by the flames will need as long as seven years to come back into production, he said.

"In the meantime, there's going to be tremendous losses, and then the replacement of those trees is costly, and then waiting for seven years or so for full production—it's going to really test some of our local farmers here," Gonzales said.

"Some of the irrigation lines have also melted in the fire," he said. "Many of the growers, if not all, have gone to more efficient microsprinklers, and they're all plastic, so those are gone. Folks are right now working to restore the irrigation to help the trees at least have some water."

The fierce Santa Ana winds that fueled the fire's spread wreaked their own havoc on the trees, Gonzales said.

"We expect that the 2018 crop of avocados is going to be greatly diminished," Gonzales said, "not only due to the fire, but the severity of the winds knocking off developing fruit."

Krist also reported wind damage.

"When the winds blow at 40-50 miles an hour, it not only knocks the fruit off but it can actually strip the leaves from the trees, too, so that even the fruit that's still on the trees is going to be vulnerable to sunburn," he said.

David Schwabauer, who grows avocados and citrus fruit in Moorpark, is located well east of the fire but has been preparing, just in case.

"We're just going around and cleaning all the trash out, and all the fence lines," Schwabauer said. "We've already cleaned 100 feet—in some cases 200 feet—back from fence lines. But still the wind blows, and then the trash blows in—leaves and stuff. So, we're trying to clean all that out, getting fire hoses ready, getting fittings squared away, checking all the generators."

Although information about citrus fruit remained preliminary, Alyssa Houtby of California Citrus Mutual said she didn't anticipate significant crop losses from the Southern California wildfires. But she said growers and shippers had been affected.

"We have growers reporting the loss of farm structures," Houtby said. "In one case in particular, we did lose some farmworker housing, unfortunately, but in terms of crop loss, we have not heard anything to that effect at this point."

The fire's spread toward Carpinteria worried Kasey Cronquist, CEO of the California Cut Flower Commission. His group calls the Carpinteria Valley "the nation's flower basket," and Cronquist said he spent Monday morning checking in with growers.

"So far, so good," he said, adding that road closures and bad air represented flower farmers' main concerns.

"We have farms that are in mandatory-evacuation areas, which is what's causing some of the issues with getting employees to those farms," Cronquist said.

Air quality is a major issue for farmers throughout the area.

The Farm Employers Labor Service, an affiliate of the California Farm Bureau Federation, advised its members that Cal/OSHA had reissued guidelines relating to working outdoors in smoky air. These can be read at www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/wildfire/Worker-Protection-from-Wildfire-Smoke.html.

Erosion will be a concern as winter arrives, Krist said, because the Thomas Fire has stripped hillsides of vegetation. When rain returns, he said, "we're going to have debris flows and all kinds of damage from that. So there's going to need to be some preparation for the anticipated return of rain, eventually."

Krist said there had also been cattle in the Ventura County hills, but that he had "no idea what the fate is of the animals."

The news was better in San Diego County, where the Lilac Fire was largely contained after menacing avocado groves and spawning evacuation orders.

Janet Kister, owner of Sunlet Nursery in Fallbrook, had to evacuate last Thursday night as the fire approached within a mile and a half of her business. By Sunday night, however, most roads had reopened.

"Everything is fine," Kister said. "All of our employees, they're fine, their homes are fine."

Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said he can't quantify the damage yet but had heard reports of damage to avocados, cut flowers and nurseries.

A number of programs are available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist farmers whose orchards suffered from the fires. These include the Tree Assistance Program, which helps farmers whose trees were damaged or destroyed by a natural disaster; the Emergency Conservation Program, which can help with debris removal, irrigation replacement, cattle fencing and other items; and low-interest emergency loans for farmers in counties declared as disaster areas. For more information, see the CFBF website at www.cfbf.com/wildfireaid.

(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.