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Farmers, ranchers seek improved wildfire policies

Issue Date: November 25, 2020
By Christine Souza

Calling for structural, regulatory changes, farmers and ranchers testified at a state legislative hearing about the impact of wildfires that have become hotter, faster and more destructive.

The sometimes-emotional testimony came during a hearing last week called by Assembly Member Robert Rivas, D-Salinas, who chairs the Assembly Agriculture Committee. At the hearing, farmers and ranchers provided first-person accounts of burned or damaged crops and livestock, lost homes and harrowing details about taking quick action to try to prevent destruction of property.

San Diego County hemp farmer Eddie Campos described watching his crop and homes burn, saying his initial 911 call to report the fire brought no response.

"Hours had passed and the fire's coming down the hill; it had just taken us over, so we start packing what we could as we watched my son's house burn and our whole hemp farm burn right in front of our own eyes. It was a devastating experience," Campos said.

California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson, a farmer in Butte County who has been ordered to evacuate his home in three of the last four years, discussed the economic toll the fires have taken on many Farm Bureau members.

"California's farms, ranches, employee housing, equipment and our raw commodities have been damaged or completely destroyed," Johansson said. "These wildfires don't discriminate and are ignorant to jurisdictional boundaries. It doesn't matter if it's federal, state or local responsibility areas."

Butte County rancher Dave Daley, past president of the California Cattlemen's Association, discussed impacts from the North Complex fire, which he said "came so quickly through our mountain range that within about 12 hours, it burned over 75,000 acres—and that included the majority of my cow herd. Roughly 400 cows and their calves were killed in the fire."

Daley and other panelists encouraged increased vegetation management, such as prescribed, controlled burns and targeted grazing to reduce the fuel load.

"California has a goal to increase the pace and scale of vegetation treatments to at least 500,000 acres per year on non-federal lands," Johansson said. "To fully treat 21 million acres of land at a goal of 500,000 acres per year, it will take 42 years.

"California must do better and must be more efficient," he said. "California is playing catch-up to a situation that has been worsening for decades and has been exacerbated by drought, disease and even climate change."

Dan Macon, University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor for Placer and Nevada counties, said research has shown targeted grazing and prescribed fires can be very effective in removing wildfire fuel. He said 38 counties are using grazing as a fuel-reduction technique.

"Targeted grazing can be very cost-effective where other options are ineffective or too costly due to terrain or topography that's too steep or remote or rocky to treat with other techniques," Macon said. "It's really important to acknowledge that agriculture is a part of the solution to this issue."

The California regional director for American Farmland Trust, Kara Heckert, said not only does agricultural land have less greenhouse gas emissions than urban land, but it is less flammable and often serves as fire breaks.

For the winegrape sector, Johansson noted the LNU Lighting Complex fire covered much of Northern California's wine region and left a weeklong blanket of smoke and ash, which was followed by the Glass Fire that burned in Napa and Sonoma counties. The Glass Fire, he said, could result in $1 billion in losses, and crop damage from smoke and ash related to the LNU Complex could be in the hundreds of millions.

Sonoma County Winegrape Growers President Karissa Kruse said areas of need include additional, faster testing to detect smoke impact on grapes.

"We had so much unpredictability in what was harvested and whether those grapes would actually be made into wine, just because we couldn't get good test results back in time," Kruse said. "Crops got left on the vine because wineries didn't want to take that risk, so that's a financial impact to farmers and farmworkers."

Panelists discussed allowing farmers and ranchers to be able to cross into evacuation zones, either to relocate imperiled animals or help with the firefighting effort by creating fire breaks or providing water for use by firefighters.

"We ended up having to deal with a lot of the issues ourselves" during the CZU Lightning Complex fire, said Cole Mazariegos-Anastassiou, who operates a small, organic farm in Pescadero.

Working nonstop for three days, Mazariegos-Anastassiou said he and neighbors cut firebreaks and wet the perimeter to keep fire out.

"We need to have a system that includes farmers and ranchers in the fire preparation, active response and restoration process," he said. "In rural communities like ours, it's essential because, as we saw on this particular fire, there just wasn't enough resources. We need to think about how to include other members of our community, to be able to protect our own communities in the face of these fires."

Johansson suggested offering a certification course in wildland fire safety to farmers, "so we can be certified to work within an evacuation zone to safely relocate or tend to our livestock."

Several panelists talked about challenges with getting farms insured to cover fire losses.

Campos said he was denied coverage from the California FAIR Plan, which includes all insurers authorized to transact basic property insurance in California.

Johansson said insurance premiums have jumped from $8,000 to $36,000 for some policyholders, and others lost coverage completely. The California FAIR plan, he said, should cover farming and ranching infrastructure just like any other commercial business in the state. He described resolving the issue as a Farm Bureau priority.

Rivas said California must be better prepared for wildfires.

"It's also clear that agriculture must be a leader in this discussion and be a part of the solution in mitigating the impacts of wildfires," Rivas said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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