Fire Destroys and Unites

Posted on Tuesday, September 8th, 2020 by Renata Brillinger
Fire near Full Belly Farm in 2018. Photo credit Thomas Nelson

Last night, just as I was saying goodnight to my daughter, our phones alerted us that the Walbridge fire a few miles north had jumped its containment line and officials were re-evacuating some residents west of Healdsburg. Though I personally have lost nothing except some sleep and productivity during these last three years of catastrophic fires in Sonoma County, these alerts trigger a feeling of collective grief and weariness.

Source: CalTopo, Sept. 8, 2020, after the greater Bay Area fires have been mainly contained

Each fire has been a unique experience. In 2017, the fire hit hard and fast, whipped up by hot winds like we are having now and swept through the peri-urban areas east of Santa Rosa and into the city, causing the loss of 24 lives. In 2019, out of an abundance of caution and determination to learn our lessons, 180,000 Sonoma County residents evacuated. The fires sparked by lightning around California three weeks ago are still burning and setting records for size and sheer number. This time I found myself anxiously watching fire maps, concerned about dozens of farms and ranches I have visited. The following are excerpts from some of their stories, shared on social media, from the frontlines of fires that are mostly contained but still burning. They tell of farmers turned firefighters, loss and resilience, and the enduring spirit of farmers and communities that support them.

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The Capay Valley in Yolo County, north and west of Sacramento, is on the eastern edge of the LNU Complex fire surrounding Lake Berryessa. All along Highway 16 there is a tight-knit community of diversified fruit and vegetable farms that direct market through CSAs and farmers markets. All are small and medium-scale, many are organic, some operated by beginning farmers and others who have farmed for decades. From a blog from Riverdog Farm on August 24:

“It has been a rough and wild week. All residents in our region were under mandatory evacuation from Tuesday until Friday with wildfires, caused by lightning last Monday, burning the rangeland in the western hills of the Capay Valley…Despite the evacuation, we were able to continue to operate the farm doing our daily tasks of harvesting and packing produce with the difficult overlay of smoky conditions. Today, thankfully, the fire is no longer threatening farms and residences. We hope that the fuel load has been reduced from this wildfire to minimize the fire risk later this year and into next year’s wildfire season.”

And from Full Belly Farm just up the road, on an August 21 Facebook post:

“We’re calling them the Muller Brigade: Paul, Amon and Rye Muller [co-owners of Full Belly Farm] have been up for two days and two nights irrigating dry grass, chopping off dry branches and disking fire breaks all over the western hills of the Capay Valley. The volunteer Fire Department and the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Fire Department have been working bruisingly long shifts, but CalFire’s resources were stretched so thin that they didn’t turn up until late into day three of the fires and even then they could only spare a small force. All of Northern California is on fire, so I do understand that they had their hands full…”

On the southern end of that Hennessy fire, the Solano Land Trust took stock of the devastation in their August 31 newsletter:

“The LNU Lightning Complex fire has had devasting effects on our region and the people in it. Already the second largest wildfire in California history, this deadly fire has razed residences that stood for generations, destroyed farming and ranching operations, and made people homeless overnight in the midst of a pandemic. The rural spaces and rolling hills that make this landscape special are in peril like many of us have not seen before…It hurts the heart heavy to see so much carnage so close to home, affecting people we cherish and places we love.”

Further south, along the coast of San Mateo County and just north of Santa Cruz, the CZU lightning fire threatened dozens of coastal farms and ranches between Davenport and Pescadero including: Swanton Berry Farm, the first unionized organic strawberry farm; Molino Creek Farm, a dry-farmed tomato growing collective; Markegard Family Grassfed, owned by Doniga and Eric Markegard who graze cattle in several coastal counties; Blue House Farm, Fly Girl Farm, R&R Herbs and Rancho Las Palmas, all beginning farmer clients of Kitchen Table Advisors; and many more. The farmers leasing land at Green Oaks Creek Farm near Pescadero lost everything in the fire and wrote this poignant Instagram post on August 28:

“The CSV August fire swept through on Tuesday afternoon and upended our lives. As of today we are suspending all farm operations at Green Oaks Creek Farm for the year until further notice. The damage is extensive and our infrastructure is no longer functional.

We are so grateful to have had the honor to grow food for the community these past 4 years. It was here I cut my teeth as a young farmer with only 32 horsepower and some elbow grease. I will never forget as long as I live all the mystery, struggle, glory and transcendence I found while farming at Green Oaks.

Although we are sad to see our time here cut so painfully short, there is no doubt we hustled and left it all on the field. We have been humbled by the awesome power of nature during our bountiful tenure, this has only deepened our conviction about the realities of climate change. Climate change is going to burn everything down. This is only the beginning. Remember, the land does not belong to us. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band never ceded this territory. May they be the future stewards of their ancestral land always and forever.”

Right next door is Pie Ranch, an abundant farm that grows organic food for local markets and provides food education and farmer training, and recently started an incubation farm at nearby Cascade Ranch for indigenous farmers and farmers of color. From Facebook posts on August 20 and 25, they updated their many followers:

“Pie Ranch staff and Cascade regenerator farmers/stewards are all safe and the majority of the buildings at Home Pie and Cascade Ranch are still standing on these sacred lands home to the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. Four 5000 gallon water tanks melted, hillsides burned, and there is much damage here and there. On Friday morning, an ember landed on our historic farm house built in 1863 and it was burned. Our hearts are breaking for this lost home, working space, piece of history. May this unexpected fire be the beginning of transformation. May we resolve to bring back indigenous knowledge, build resilient homes for all people, practice climate restoration, feed our community, bring justice to this land and food system, love more, and learn to make this road by walking.

We are simultaneously grieving for our off-site staff, neighbors, critters and all who have lost their homes, for our surrounding communities who are still in the path of the blaze, and for all suffering during this great reckoning with the intersections of climate change, racial injustice, a global health crisis, and greed…Clean-up will be immense, but there is help waiting in the wings, and we will regrow better together.”

The San Mateo Resource Conservation District (RCD) wrote this in an August 22 newsletter:

“As of this newsletter, the CZU Lightning Complex Fire is 63,000 acres across southern San Mateo and northern Santa Cruz counties, and only 5% contained. Even now, while our hearts are breaking, fires are still burning and emergency response is in full swing, we have already begun putting together strategies, resources, and partnerships for recovery. We are ready to roll up our sleeves alongside so many others to help recover this community and heal the land itself.”

The statewide network of RCDs, land trusts and open space districts provide numerous practical resources for farmers and ranchers during and in the aftermath of fires like these. For example, the Sonoma RCD offers the following services related to fire recovery and resiliency:

  • Technical assistance information and site visits to determine resource needs and appropriate actions concerning erosion, riparian areas, forest management, etc.
  • Connecting landowners with funding resources available for post-fire natural resource protection
  • Natural resource permit assistance on a fee for service basis
  • Advice to landowners on preparing for winter after the fire

It is stories like these that inspire and galvanize me in my work, and reveal the interconnections between the land and a community of agriculturalists and conservationists that have the wisdom and knowledge to recover from climate change related catastrophes like these, and unite to transform our food and farming system.

The Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), a CalCAN coalition member, has re-opened its fire relief fund and is accepting donations for family farms and farmworkers impacted by wildfire. Pleasants Valley Agriculture Association has accumulated many stories of Vacaville farms affected by the LNU Lightning Complex Fires with direct donation links.

To donate directly to support undocumented workers affected by fire, we recommend Undocufund which has chapters in Sonoma and Monterey. Also, a former farmworker at Swanton Berry Farm near Davenport has started a fundraiser for farmworkers displaced during the fire.

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