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Series of Wildfires Harms Crops and Rangeland


Published August 8, 2018

Wildfires up and down California have forced farmers, ranchers and their employees into evacuation centers and a constant state of worry.

While it's still too soon to know exactly how much damage there is, assistance awaits from the federal government, as President Trump approved Gov. Brown's request for a federal disaster declaration during the weekend.

Among the fires is the Mendocino Complex—the River and Ranch fires put together—burning their way through Mendocino, Lake and Colusa counties. Most of the burning is taking place in Lake County, where winegrapes and pears are the prime crops.

Keith Brandt, who works for Bella Vista Farming Co. of Kelseyville and serves as president of the Lake County Farm Bureau, said he knows of vineyard damage in the Upper Lake area, and fire maps he saw Monday showed the fire moving toward vineyards in the High Valley area. He also had received reports of pear-orchard damage in Scotts Valley. People had not yet been able to gain access to the areas to assess the damage, he said.

As he examined one vineyard his employer manages near Kelseyville, Brandt said it's not yet possible to tell if smoke might affect the grapes.

"Winegrapes and smoke just don't mix," he said. "At this point, I would have to say it's probably too early to tell if there's damage to the grapes. We just have to be hopeful that we're going to get clear air sooner than later."

Veraison, or winegrape ripening, is just beginning in Lake County. Harvest is supposed to begin early next month, Brandt said, and opinions differ as to whether ripening grapes are more susceptible to smoke damage.

"As much as we know about smoke taint in the industry, there's probably that much that we don't," he said.

Last week was an eventful one for Toni Scully and her crew at Scully Packing Co. in Finley, which packs pears from Lake County and other regions.

"We had been under evacuation in Lakeport already for a couple of days when they declared an evacuation in Kelseyville and Finley" on July 30, Scully said.

That forced the Finley pear-packing plant to close, as the Scullys themselves and most of their employees had to clear out of their homes.

"We were just kind of coming down off of the peak of our Sacramento River run here," Scully said. "All of a sudden, our crew had to leave in a panic, because they all had to find places to stay. It's pretty worrisome when you know that there's a fire raging near."

By 8 p.m. July 31, the mandatory evacuation order had been shifted to an advisory.

"We called a crew for (Aug. 1) at 1 o'clock, and people turned around on a dime and we were able to get one line running," Scully said. "These people are just so dedicated."

The next day, the packinghouse was once again moving at nearly full capacity. Neither the Scullys nor any of their employees lost their homes, she added.

"We've got our feet under us again," she said. "It was truly a white-knuckle time, because nobody knew how long this was going to last or where the fire was going to end up."

In Mendocino County, where the River Fire started, farmers said rangeland and timberland had burned.

Katie Delbar, a Potter Valley rancher, said the fires burned through her place July 27-28, wiping out fences and feed. She has a 160-head grazing allotment in the Mendocino National Forest, and though she was able to retrieve some of her cattle, about 70-80 head were unaccounted for, she said, and at least one neighbor is missing a smaller number of cattle.

"We're going to have a large number probably of livestock and rangeland losses," she said, noting that finding the missing cattle is only part of the problem—the next one is "trying to figure out where to put them, because there's no feed there."

Friends have offered to shelter some of her cattle, she said.

Delbar's family also has timberland, much of which has burned, and salvage logging needs to be done, she added.

"There's quite a bit of timber on our property that we've lost," she said.

Kyle Farmer, a Potter Valley rancher and volunteer firefighter, was among those taking part in livestock evacuation efforts.

"I went down to Hopland and was allowed to go back into the hills there that had just burned," Farmer said. "Luckily, it looks like the firefighters down there had been able to stop it halfway through that particular ranch, and the cattle were safe."

Other ranchers had cattle grazing on leases in the Mendocino National Forest, he said; some of these animals were moved to a temporary corral. Evacuated cattle have been returned to home ranches on the Potter Valley floor.

"A caravan of friends about eight trailers long just kept on loading up and getting them out of the way," Farmer said. "We're all available with our trailers, and we'll see what's needed."

Farmer said he lost about 4,000 acres of winter grazing ground for his 600 head of cattle, adding that cattle can help cut down on fire fuel.

"I was talking to (U.S. Bureau of Land Management), and they get so much pushback from the public about grazing that they have a hard time finding people to graze, but the science that I have read is pretty clear, that fires don't stop unless they run across grazed land," Farmer said. "I think we really need to change the conversation about grazing."

A smaller fire last week in El Dorado County may have been checked early by a herd of goats on Roy Austin's property. The Bumper Fire kicked up Aug. 1 and began burning through heavy chaparral toward Austin's home.

"We have quite a few goats that we keep at home," Austin said. "The vegetation is just totally stripped, and the fire stopped at my fence line."

To the north, Shasta County agricultural officials continue to assess the impact of the Carr Fire.

Paul Kjos, the county agricultural commissioner, said his office was working with the Shasta County Sheriff's Office to access fire-damaged areas and survey the effect on agriculture. Kjos said there may be damage to rangeland or beekeeping operations.

As a result of the federal disaster declaration, farmers and ranchers in Shasta County can apply for low-interest emergency loans. More information can be had by calling the Shasta County USDA Farm Service Agency at 530-691-5867 or going to the Redding office at 3644 Avtech Parkway, Suite D.

Ranchers who lost cattle can use the USDA Livestock Indemnity Program, while those who lost feed or fencing may look into the Livestock Forage Disaster Program. Information about these and other programs aimed at helping farmers and ranchers recover from fire losses is available at www.cfbf.com/wildfireaid.

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