Powerless pumps left Ventura farm open to wildfire


Issue Date: November 13, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman

Ventura County farmer John Grether found himself literally powerless to fight the Maria Fire when it burned into one of his groves.

"We had had power off for about 36 hours, which was a pretty big inconvenience in its own right," said Grether, who grows avocados, lemons and mandarins near Somis. "The consequence was that we were not able to irrigate, because our wells and mutual water companies that we get water from are also on wells and booster pumps," all of which run on electricity from the grid.

"So we had to curtail our irrigation, and we weren't able to—particularly in the avocados—get the ground wet and saturate the leaf litter, and put the trees in good shape in case there was a fire," Grether said.

His local utility, Southern California Edison, had cut power to the area as part of a public safety power shutoff prompted by a forecast of high Santa Ana winds. Those winds subsided in the afternoon of Oct. 31, Grether said, but the power was still off when the fire broke out on South Mountain shortly after 6 p.m.

"Our ranch, the one where we sustained the fire damage, is due south, and the fire came down the hillside very rapidly," he said. "There was still some wind—not a lot, but there was some wind, and so it moved quickly."

With no power to his pumps, Grether said he couldn't use his water trucks, aside from accessing some water in an aboveground tank. One of his ranches has a hilltop reservoir that feeds water to fire sprinklers by gravity—a system that worked well, he said.

Grether praised the efforts of firefighters, who did what they could to save his land. But he said the power outage hindered them as well.

"One of the difficulties was that they were asking our fellows in our company if they could have access to our ag water, and we could not provide that because we had no power," he said.

The consequences: Grether estimates he lost about 35 acres of avocados and 1 or 2 acres of citrus.

Farmers in the area are frustrated, said John Krist, chief executive of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.

"There's been an awful lot of grumbling among farmers down here about the shutoff policy, out of fear that precisely this scenario would develop," Krist said.

Mary Ann Milbourn, a spokeswoman for Southern California Edison, said the utility tries to warn people 48 hours in advance if a shutoff is likely.

"Sometimes the weather changes very rapidly and we have to turn the power off without giving notice," Milbourn said. "This did happen a few times (last month) because we had sudden shifts in the weather pattern."

Before a line can be re-energized, it has to be inspected for damage, she added. In the area where the Maria Fire broke out, "some of the customers who had been shut off had a delayed restoration of their power because there was damage to some of the circuits, and we had to repair the damage before we could turn them back on," she said.

Grether got his power back Nov. 2, two days after the fire started—a total of four days in the dark.

"Even if there hadn't been a fire, the fact that we weren't able to irrigate and take care of our crops just in the wind event in a sense caused damage," he said. "We try to anticipate the weather situation, but wind and dry humidity put a big stress on any plant, and that's when you need to get water to it."

Grether's irrigation pumps bring water up from deep wells; many of the motors are 200 to 250 horsepower. He also has booster pumps. He hasn't priced out the needed generators yet but knows they won't be cheap.

"That's a considerable expense to have to have that as backup equipment," he said, adding that if fires and power shutoffs become more frequent, he'll need larger firebreaks as well.

"We'd had firebreaks," he said. "We mowed the grasses where we could, where it wasn't too steep. We had cleaned up any prunings in the avocado trees. So we had tried to clean the orchard to make it less susceptible to fire. But the fire was so intense and the conditions were just right as far as being very, very low humidity. Fortunately, the strong wind had passed. It might've been even worse."

Countywide, early estimates from the Ventura County agricultural commissioner's office showed 160 acres of avocados and 25 acres of lemons damaged or destroyed.

On his ranch, Grether said he is busy repairing irrigation lines and assessing fire-damaged trees, with an eye toward identifying those unlikely to survive.

"Unfortunately, it takes some time to know that," he said. "Often, trees that are exposed to a fire don't really show the full effect for a couple of months at least."

Citrus and avocado rootstock is in short supply, he added, meaning "we may be two or three years away from being able to replant."

Grether's said his next concern is about the potential for a landslide. Looking at South Mountain from Highway 118 in Las Posas Valley shows "it's a moonscape," he said. "It burned so hot and so ferociously that there's really no vegetation left up there. If we get a hard rain early, we're going to have significant erosion issues."

In Sonoma County, where the Kincade Fire was fully contained last week, Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar and his staff have sent out surveys seeking to tally the damage to vineyards, rangeland and structures.

"One thing definitely that we're seeing is there is more vine damage from this fire than there was from the 2017 fires," Linegar said, including vineyards that may be total losses.

More than 90% of the grape harvest had been completed at the time of the fire, so a disaster declaration is not likely, Linegar said, because the threshold for a declaration is a loss of 30% or greater.

"We'll at least document the losses, whether or not we meet those thresholds," he said.

Linegar said his office worked with the Sonoma County sheriff's office to help growers reach vineyards in evacuation zones, adding that the sheriff "did a great job." With two autumns worth of fires behind him, Linegar said it's time to formalize such procedures.

"What I think needs to happen going forward is we probably need to create a statewide model for agricultural access during these types of fires," he said, "working with Cal Fire, working with CHP and obviously ag commissioners and (the) sheriff's offices to get some sort of statewide protocol that can be used and portable from county to county for these type of incidents."

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

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