Wildfire Solutions for Agriculture, Part 3: Improving Access to Farms and Ranches During Wildfire Events

Posted on Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021 by Brian Shobe
Fire near Sierra National Forest, photo credit: United States Forest Service, photo courtesy of USDA

Note: This is the third blog in a 4-part series on solutions to address the impacts of wildfire on agricultural communities. The first blog covered controlled burns. The second blog covered prescribed grazing.

Wildfires often result in road closures, evacuation orders, and restricted areas that pose a variety of challenges to farmers and ranchers, including preventing them from irrigating their crops or watering, feeding, sheltering, and transporting their livestock. Sometimes these orders and restrictions prevent farmers and ranchers from sharing their useful skills and local knowledge to support firefighting efforts. Farmers and ranchers who choose to ignore these orders and restrictions risk being charged with a misdemeanor.

Firefighters’ first priority during wildfires is to protect lives and residential homes, which often results in farms and ranches being underserved during fire events, despite the fact that fields, vineyards, and grazed landscapes can serve as strategic fuel and fire breaks (e.g., disking the edge of a field, irrigating a vineyard, and maintaining grazed grasses can all slow or stop the progress of a wildfire). In recent wildfire disasters, state firefighting resources have been stretched so thin that some rural agricultural regions have been left to fend on their own.

The Capay Valley in northwest Yolo county was one of those regions. Recounting her experience in 2020, Full Belly Farm co-owner Judith Redmond wrote: “Our Valley was the eastern edge of the LNU Complex Fire in the summer of last year. We soon realized that we weren’t going to see air or ground support from CalFIRE because they were stretched way too thin. Volunteer fire departments plus local farmers and ranchers worked day and night to keep the fire off the Valley floor and away from homes and farm buildings.”

One Policy Solution: Support County Ag Pass Programs

Image by Brennan Emerson from Pixabay.

To address these issues, Ventura County created an Ag Pass program, administered by the County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. The first-of-its-kind program in the state allows certified “Ag Pass-carrying” owner-operators of commercial farms and ranches, along with their employees, access to areas that may otherwise be restricted to the public so they can care for agricultural assets (e.g., by irrigating crops or caring for and transporting livestock) and provide auxiliary support to emergency personnel (e.g., by identifying access roads and water access points).

UCCE Range Advisor Matthew Shapero and UCCE Wildfire Specialist Max Moritz recently wrote an article about the Ag Pass concept and Ventura County’s experience, called “Preparing for Disaster: Establishing an Ag Pass Program in Your Community.” In a follow-up Policy Brief, Shapero and Moritz identified the following set of policy actions that would enable more counties to establish their own Ag Pass programs:

  • Codify the Ag Pass concept into statute by adding Ag Pass holders to Penal Code section 409.5, which currently allows “duly authorized” members of the press access to areas closed due to disasters and exempts them from potential misdemeanor charges for entering or remaining in such areas.
  • Provide one-time funds to county offices to establish an Ag Pass Program, including funding for initial program set-up and outreach, ID card machines, etc.
  • Require CalFIRE to develop training curriculum that counties could use should they choose to include a training requirement in their Ag Pass programs.

Assembly Bill 1103, introduced recently by Assemblymember Megan Dahle (R-Bieber) and sponsored by the California Cattlemen’s Association, aims to address these needs. CalCAN is currently gathering input on this bill from our network. If you have thoughts you would like to share on the bill, email brian(at)calclimateag.org.

Up Next: Stay tuned for the final blog in our 4-part series on Protecting Farmworkers from Wildfire Smoke.

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