Commentary: Orchards, farmers play key role in fighting wildfires

Issue Date: February 21, 2018
By John Krist
John Krist
Irrigated avocado and citrus orchards acted as buffers that helped shield residential neighborhoods as the Thomas Fire burned through Ventura County last December.
Photo/John Krist

During the terrible days and weeks the Thomas Fire tormented a broad swath of Ventura County, members of the community were keenly aware of the debt they owed to the first responders who confronted the flames on their behalf: firefighters, law enforcement officers, emergency preparedness experts.

The losses during that chaotic, unimaginable first night in Ventura are still terrible to contemplate. But after that initial, wind-driven onslaught in the ember-streaked darkness, the agencies were able to mobilize, and the army swelled to hundreds and then thousands—a coordinated force of men, women and machinery deployed skillfully across the vast fire front.

There's a reason that Fillmore, Santa Paula and Ojai did not burn; that Ventura's Avenue neighborhood and the Ventura River valley hamlets of Casitas Springs, Oak View, Mira Monte and Meiners Oaks did not burn. Skilled and brave firefighters were willing to put themselves between us and danger. And more often than not, they prevailed.

But in some areas—particularly the Foothill Road corridor between Ventura and Santa Paula, the Fillmore neighborhoods at the foot of San Cayetano Mountain, and the east end of the Ojai Valley—there was an additional reason: Communities were protected by a wide buffer of fire-resistant, irrigated avocado and citrus orchards.

In those orchards, as the flames advanced, an army of hundreds of farm employees, managers and owners waged a desperate and largely unseen battle to save ranch homes, trees, fruit and equipment. Their efforts helped protect adjacent residential neighborhoods by ensuring that the fire died when it hit those orchards, instead of racing through them.

Farm employees cut firebreaks with bulldozers. They drove water trucks and manned hoses to hold the fire on the grove perimeter. They tamped out interior spot fires with shovels and backpack sprayers. Sometimes, they had help from professional fire crews. Often, they did not.

Some battles raged for a night and then were over. Others were repeated day after day, as the fire swooped and dodged, driven in one direction and then another by the shifting winds.

Where brush-covered hillsides abutted residential neighborhoods north of Foothill Road and Poli Street in Ventura, homes burned. Where similar brushy hillsides extended all the way to Foothill, homes even burned on the downhill side of the road.

But as you drive east toward Santa Paula, the uphill slopes become a verdant landscape of avocado trees, carefully tended and doggedly defended by their owners and caretakers. Along that stretch, although a handful of structures were lost, the fire mostly chewed at the uphill margins of the groves. And it appears that none of the thousands of homes downhill of Foothill Road were burned.

The groves suffered. Damage varied greatly from one ranch to another, in response to many variables: topography, the nature of neighboring vegetation, the thoroughness of on-farm fire preparation, whether irrigation systems had run long enough before the fire—and in the right places—to soak leaf litter that might otherwise ferry flames deep into the orchard.

But it's too early to tell just how bad the damage really is. Although about 10,000 acres of irrigated agricultural land was within the Thomas Fire perimeter in Ventura County, according to a preliminary assessment by the agricultural commissioner's office, the great majority of that was untouched.

Perhaps a third suffered direct damage, and even in those groves that look charred and lifeless, the heat was not always intense enough to kill trees. It will take months of careful monitoring to determine which will bounce back and which will have to be replaced.

What we do know for certain is that the terrible weeks of December fostered an inspiring response from every quarter of the community.

Thomas came at us like a dragon, and the people in its path responded like heroes, like good neighbors, like family. Friends supported friends, strangers supported strangers, and an army of visitors from near and far assembled to protect us and help us recover.

In the aftermath, by all means, thank a firefighter. Thank a shelter volunteer. Thank the anonymous donors of food, blankets and cash.

But if you are fortunate to live in a neighborhood buffered from the flames by irrigated orchards, also thank a farmworker. Thank a farmer.

(John Krist is chief executive officer of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County. He may be contacted at This piece originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.)

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