California Farms and Wildfires

A feature from the archives

As the Caldor and other fires continue to rage throughout California and the rest of the West, we take a look how the fires affect our farming in the Golden State, and the surprising promise those farms hold for us as we battle the blazes. This archive feature was originally published in Edible San Diego in the summer of 2019.

The eight largest wildfires in California have occurred in the last ten years, with three of these fires occurring in 2018. The Mendocino Fire of 2018, the largest fire in California history, raged for nearly three months and consumed 459,123 acres, ten times the area of Washington DC. Besides the severity of and increasing size of individual fires, there is also a general trend for fires to burn more and more California acres every year.

Scientists have made a connection between our increasing fires and human induced climate change. Higher temperatures translate into shorter rainy seasons, drier vegetation, and changes to the Santa Ana winds that fan the flames. When we see news coverage of wildfires and the damage that they bring, television cameras often focus on the ashes and smoke from the remains of houses and neighborhoods, but how do our wildfires affect our California farms? And what is being done for the future?

Preparedness and Research

In San Diego County most farms are in our backcountry or at the interface between the backcountry and urban areas, such as the bucolic fields we see around Fallbrook or Santa Ysabel. Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego Farm Bureau, says that during wildfire, resources are correctly concentrated on saving lives, buildings, and homes. “This means that farmers must do what they can to have protections in place before a fire occurs.  Those are the typical recommendations for any one; keeping fuel away from structures, perimeter clearing, weed control, and having emergency plans in place,” he says.

In a recent news release from the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Rebecca Ozeran, a livestock and natural resources advisor for Fresno and Madera Counties, said that as of today there is no good estimate of the cost of wildfire to livestock producers in California. In an effort to find answers, University of California researchers began an online survey of California livestock producers late last year. Besides information on wildfire and livestock, the researchers hope to map areas in which wildfire will have higher economic ramifications and find preventive measures that ranchers can undertake to mitigate losses due to wildfire.

 With an eye toward a future that presents more risk from wildfire, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, a collaborative between California’s wine growers and the Wine Institute, has researched the issue and published a fire preparedness guide, as well as an online video, for grape growers, according to Gladys Horiuchi, Director of Media Relations for the Wine Institute.

Farming Makes Its Own Fire Insurance

This year, with its almost Noahic rains, California is teaming with brush and grasses. With our annual summer drought, the brush and grass can be ready tinder for the next wildfire. As part of a solution to this threat, a growing number of goat herders and shepherds are offering the services of their voracious livestock for natural, non-mechanized brush clearance.

The sheep and goats are naturally suited to foraging on canyon slopes. They also like to nibble in crags and between rocks. These areas are difficult, expensive, and sometimes impossible to access with commercial brush clearing equipment. The sheep and goats come at a lower cost than a crew of humans operating brush-clearing equipment. They even eat poison oak.

Leave a comment

The benefits of the brush clearing livestock were noted during last year’s Woolsey Fire north of Los Angeles. Fires were raging and approaching the Morrison Ranch Estates, a 1,226 home real estate development. The flames were halted by a firebreak that had been cleared by goats (although flying embers ignited three homes, two of which were destroyed).

In 2017 the area around Fallbrook was burned in the Lilac Fire. Though flames went through many orchards, damage was slight. Dr. Gerry Bender Emeritus UC Davis agriculture expert said at the time that if a fire moves slowly, then the heat has time to affect the trunk of a tree, and it will need to be replaced, but if the fire burns hot and fast, the leaves of the trees will have burned, but the tree itself will probably be fine. Dr. Bender said that farmers should continue to water their orchards after a fire and leave the affected trees alone for up to three months after a fire before deciding whether the tree needs replacing. If the trunk is undamaged, the tree will likely recover.

In California’s wine country, vineyards actually mitigate the effects of fires. While forests blazed and entire neighborhoods were turned to ash during the Wine Country Fires of 2017, many vineyards remained untouched by the flames. Gladys Horiuchi says, “In the past, California vineyards have served as firebreaks during wildfires and saved several wineries and other structures from damage. Grapevines are irrigated and resilient and not easily burned. If a vine is singed and does not actually burn, it will recover fully.”

As California faces greater threats from wildfire, our farms face new and increasing challenges. Our universities and agricultural associations are investigating and instituting preventative measures and solutions for our farms. And our orchards, vineyards, and pastures may turn out to be some of our greatest aids in our struggle with wildfire.