Farmers gauge wildfire’s long-term impact


Issue Date: March 21, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman
Ed McFadden looks over an avocado tree damaged in the Thomas Fire in a grove he manages near Fillmore. McFadden is taking a wait-and-see approach to this and other damaged trees; those showing signs of life may be pruned back and allowed to regenerate. He says such trees would need a couple of years to come back into production.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
New growth, called a sucker, appears on a fire-damaged avocado tree in a Fillmore grove. Avocado farmer Ed McFadden says trees showing such growth may not need to be replaced, but rather pruned back. The tree should be productive again in a couple of years.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

New, green growth has sprouted from the blackened trunks of avocado trees damaged by the Thomas Fire last December. Ed McFadden, who manages a grove near Fillmore, said the new growth gives him reason for optimism.

Now, three and a half months since the fire began, McFadden and other farmers and ranchers are assessing its longer-term impacts.

"As we start to warm up and we get into sort of a springtime growth mode, we just see whether the tree starts suckering out," McFadden said, referring to the green shoots.

Trees killed to the ground may yet produce root shoots, which could be grafted, he said.

"Hopefully, because of some of the precautions we took prior to the fire, we'll see some suckering out above the trunk, and we can cut back down to where we think the wood is strong and just build new trees," McFadden said.

The Thomas Fire erupted near Santa Paula on Dec. 4 and became the largest wildfire in recorded California history, burning nearly 282,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

McFadden's groves were among the 5,000 to 6,000 acres of avocados within the Thomas Fire perimeter, according to Ken Melban, vice president of industry relations for the California Avocado Commission. About 1,250 acres were affected to some degree, Melban added.

The Thomas Fire took nearly a week to reach McFadden's groves, giving him and a crew of 30 time to build and reinforce defenses. For example, they worked to remove leaf litter under the trees.

"Very often during a fire, there's just clouds of sparks that are coming in from the hillsides burning around us, and those sparks can land out in the leaf litter spread," McFadden said.

Avocado trees generally don't burn, he added; they get cooked from underneath by the burning leaf litter.

"You don't find a pile of ashes," McFadden said. "You find a very sad-looking tree after the fire, and then have to wait and see what happens, maybe for several months."

Farmers who need to replace trees will likely be in for a long wait. McFadden and others said avocado rootstock is sold out for the next several years, likely through 2020 or 2021.

"Part of the problem is, it takes so long to ramp up," said David Schwabauer, an avocado and lemon farmer in Moorpark, describing the multiyear process needed to create avocado rootstock. "It's not just, 'Here, let's take a tree and stick it in the ground.' It's a very sophisticated, yearslong process."

Melban said nurseries are working hard to restart rootstock propagation, and noted that the lead time from order to delivery was a year even before the fire. But he said affected growers he's talked to have no plans to leave the business.

"The ones that I've spoken with and met with and visited, they've all made a commitment that they're staying in the avocado industry," Melban said. "They're going to replant, and they're going to take this as an opportunity to maybe go to higher-density plantings."

The fire's effects linger in other parts of Ventura County, as well.

Limoneira, a citrus grower and packer in Santa Paula, lost 14 modular homes set up as employee housing. Three months after the blaze, much of the wreckage remained in place, as permits to remove it had not yet been issued, said Alex Teague, senior vice president and chief operating officer.

"Immediately the next day, we went about trying to get with the county and the state and the other departments to see what it will take to put the 14 homes we lost back," Teague said. "That's where we remain today, unfortunately."

Securing the permits involves multiple agencies and hazardous-waste rules, he added.

Teague said his company postponed bringing in crews on H-2A visas and moved displaced employees into the housing intended for the visa holders. Others stayed with relatives or in motels.

The lemon crop appeared safe from fire damage, Teague said, adding that the region's Santa Ana winds proved to be a larger concern.

"We have a lot of wind scarring and a lot of lack of fruit growth," he said.

Ventura County ranchers lost about 300 head of cattle in the Thomas Fire burn area, said Bev Bigger, president of the Ventura County Cattlemen's Association. Many also lost feed and hay along with all their grazing ground, she added.

"Basically, people just kind of dug into their pockets and got some hay, but we also had some help," Bigger said.

Hay donations and a county emergency-hay program helped tide them over; a website seeking donations to help cover feed expenses has been established at www.thomasfirehelp.org/cattle.

"Some of us have had to sell some cattle just to make room, because you don't have any feed, and also to generate funds to buy more hay," Bigger said.

It likely will take a couple of years for cattle ranchers to recover fully, she said, in part due to the need to replace barns and other equipment. Ranchers are figuring on buying hay through at least June, she added.

Bigger's eyes were on the weather forecast, which called for a storm to move into the region this week.

"It's either going to wash us away or it's going to really help us," she said. "If this rain that we're getting does what I hope it does, we'll be able to probably hang in there."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.