Wildfire and Its Painful Lessons

The CalFire map as of mid-afternoon on Oct. 13, showing the extent of the Northern CA fires. http://www.fire.ca.gov/general/firemaps

The wildfires raging here in Sonoma County, where I live, and in neighboring Napa and Mendocino Counties, remain virtually uncontained as we go into the fifth day. They are breaking records we don’t want to break: most deadly; most expensive; greatest property damage; worst air quality on record. And there are impacts as well with the loss of treasured landmarks, historic icons and devastated landscapes. The fires are indiscriminate, laying waste to both wealthy and working class neighborhoods, and to both urban and rural resources.

The impact on agriculture

It will take some time to assess the scale of the damage from this disaster and the implications for the region’s farmers and ranchers. Gleaned from early media reports, here is some of what we know so far about the main agricultural crops.

Wine grapes (approximate $450 million value in Sonoma and $700 million in Napa)— Most of the wine harvest (75 to 90%) had been completed prior to the fires, leaving mainly cabernet sauvignon and merlot on the vines. No information is available on how many acres have been lost, nor on the smoke damage that may make some grapes unusable. Some iconic wineries and vineyards have been lost and many more remain in the path of the fire. Among many community members and leaders who have lost their homes are two local agricultural leaders Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, and Nick Frey, former president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission

Livestock (approximate $245 million value in Sonoma County) — The fire exacted an immediate toll on the county’s ranchers who are facing challenges with evacuating animals and in some cases losses of herds, though the magnitude is unknown since the crisis is still unfolding. In terms of rangeland productivity through the coming winter, the impact of the fires is somewhat unpredictable. Our grasslands are well-adapted to cycles of fires like these, and could rebound with the coming rains. We may see increased plant diversity in the spring, and the burning is removing built-up thatch that can inhibit new forage growth. However, with heavy rain, the subsequent erosion on hillsides could be significant and may decrease grass production due to the loss of soil nutrients.

Cannabis (unknown value; estimated 3,000 to 9,000 medical cannabis farmers) — This agricultural industry is evolving with the passage of Proposition 64 that legalizes recreational marijuana use starting in 2017. North Coast counties are home to many outdoor rural cannabis operations as well as indoor operations in urban areas. No official data on the industry are available, but there is no doubt it will be significantly impacted.

Orchards and mixed vegetables (approximate $13 million value in Sonoma County) — Though not comprising a large portion of Sonoma County’s agricultural economy or acreage, the producers of these crops are the face of the region’s local food, farmers market, community-supported agriculture and young farmer identity. This region is a hotbed of advocacy, vision and networks to support agricultural diversity, environmental stewardship and beginning farmers and ranchers. We don’t yet know how badly these smaller growers have been affected, but there is no question that they are vulnerable to the scale of disruption this disaster is creating. The good news is that they are also part of a statewide and national network that is kicking in with support. With astounding generosity, many of these farmers, despite thin profit margins, have donated produce to fire relief efforts to feed fire victims and evacuees.

Lessons on resilience

The fires are serving as a stress test for all of our human and natural systems. We are learning how interconnected we are as a human community, how dependent on natural resources and ecosystems, and how vulnerable when faced with extreme weather and unpredictable events that can converge as they did with these fires. With climate change, we can anticipate more such tests.

Though the region is still very much under siege, some thoughts are turning to recovering and rebuilding. Our North Coast counties are blessed with a remarkable combination of wealth, intelligent and compassionate people, progressive ecological and social values, relatively resilient climate and ecosystems, strong political leadership, and biological, agricultural and socioeconomic diversity. We have all the right conditions here to come back from this disaster—learning from the lessons about our vulnerabilities—in new ways that enhance the resilience of our communities. 

Local resources for farmers and ranchers

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau has issued a call for support from: those who can take in evacuated animals; those who have taken in evacuated animals and need supplies; those who want to donate hay, feed or other livestock supplies; and those who need supplies or assistance because their farm or ranch has been damaged by the fires. Contact Emily Janowski at emily@sonomafb.org.

17 California fairs are serving as emergency shelters and fire camps. For details: http://plantingseedsblog.cdfa.ca.gov/wordpress/?p=13958

The Agriculture Commissioner and Cooperative Extension are coordinating care for crops and livestock for evacuees. If you have crops to harvest and/or livestock to feed and cannot get to them, call the numbers below and provide your name, phone number, location and description of needs.

Crops: Ag Commissioner Office: (707) 565-2371

Livestock: UCCE (707) 565-2305

•  Western United Dairymen (WUD) has launched a supply drive for people and animals. Donations should be brought on Oct. 20 to the WUD office at 1315 K St. in Modesto. WUD will have trucks available that day to haul donated supplies to Sonoma County.

•  Our coalition partner Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) has joined a coalition of North Bay organizations to establish a Fire Recovery Fund, channeling resources to help families and individuals recover, as well as to support grassroots initiatives that build resilience in the face of future catastrophe. Donations can be made online (http://www.caff.org/north-bay-fires/) or by mailing a check payable to CAFF, w/ “Relief Fund” in the memo to: CAFF, PO Box 363, Davis, CA 95617


In her recent column in the Press Democrat’s Sonoma Home section, Kate Frey of Frey Vineyards—which was destroyed in the Redwood Valley Fire—ends her reflection on the fires with this:

“These fires will change our landscape. Fires destroy, but the land will reawaken, and with it many of our homes. Our valleys and hillsides will recover much more quickly than we will, and will take on a character different than what we knew. Our cities, towns and rural areas will be new places. We will need to work at creating home for ourselves and for everyone.”

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