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Lessons learned from devastating North State fires

Issue Date: February 7, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman
Ed Vanoni and his daughter, Adriane Garayalde, relied on family and friends to help fight the Pocket Fire on their Geyserville ranch last October. The fire burned Geyser Peak, in the background, but slowed on the ranch in part because the grazing of the cattle cut down on fuel.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

Lessons learned from the severe North Bay wildfires last fall could help other regions prepare for and respond to disasters, according to farmers and county officials in Sonoma County.

Nearly four months after the Pocket, Tubbs and Nuns fires raced through the region, the State Board of Food and Agriculture visited Sonoma County last week to discuss the aftermath of the fires and the status of recovery efforts. The board toured affected farms prior to meeting at Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol.

"Coming here really brought it home to us," said Don Cameron, general manager of Terra Nova Farms in Fresno County and chairman of the board.

"What we saw was some of the problems that the growers are facing trying to get debris removal and trying to get back to a working operation again—a lot of stumbling blocks, a lot of regulatory issues that they have to work through that I think we can all learn from," Cameron said.

Steve Dutton, a vineyard manager and president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, who attended the meeting, said the rest of the state can learn from Sonoma County's experience. Access to farms in evacuation zones was an important issue, he said.

"Other counties' ag commissioners and Farm Bureaus should use Sonoma County and Napa County, what's happened here, as a case study," Dutton said, "so all these other counties learn how to open up access for their farmers once it's safe, so they can get into an evacuated area, harvest their crop, tend their animals and get people in and out safely."

At the meeting, Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar told the board about enabling such access, which resulted in employees from his office escorting farmers to and from their properties. In fact, when the Thomas Fire sprang up in Southern California in early December, Linegar's Santa Barbara County counterpart called him for advice, he said. (See story.)

Cameron said the Sonoma County agricultural commissioner "did a fantastic job of talking with the agencies, getting access and actually bringing people onto the land so they could get back to their farms and check on things."

The impact of the fires on agricultural production continues being tallied. Linegar's office sent out a voluntary survey, and from responses received so far, he reported an estimated loss of $1.28 million. Of Sonoma County's 62,019 acres of vineyards, damage was reported on 2,482 acres, he told the board.

Dutton said vineyards he manages that had been scorched by wildfire seem to be holding up well so far.

"The ones that have minimal damage, it's still a little early to tell," Dutton said. "We've pruned a lot of them, and we're hopeful that they're going to start growing and do well here come springtime. I think the real effect will be later in the spring, when we see how well they're growing."

It will take a couple of years for the vines to recover fully, he added.

Linegar said his observations from driving around the county revealed that grazing land, as well as vineyards, helped check the fire's spread.

"Buildings that were surrounded by pastureland that had been grazed down, you could see that it slowed or stopped the fire from reaching different structures," he said.

In fact, Linegar said, his office has received some interesting phone calls in the wildfires' aftermath.

"We've had several landowners inquire with us about the permitting process, because they want to put in a vineyard as a fire break," Linegar said, saying the landowners intend to lease the land or hire a vineyard manager to handle the farm work.

The owners of a ranch near Geyserville can attest to the effectiveness of grazing land as a fire break.

"It bought us time to do the back fires, to prevent the fire from moving into the housing subdivision that's near us," said Adriane Garayalde, whose family has owned Vanoni Ranch for more than a century.

The ranch has Angus cattle, mostly cow-calf pairs, and horses. About 750 of its 1,800 acres were burned by the Pocket Fire and the back fires, she said.

"Basically, for the first two and a half days, it was two dozer drivers and us," Garayalde said. "There was no other help, because everybody was in Santa Rosa trying to battle the fires there."

Now, she said, the ranch is on the mend.

"I think it's been coming back pretty well," Garayalde said. "My brother's been out doing some additional clearing—where trees have fallen, especially. They've gone down where fence lines were and are getting those cleaned up, so we can rebuild the fence and the spring."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

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

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