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Caldwell Fire causes smoke damage to crops

Issue Date: August 5, 2020
By Christine Souza
Flames and smoke from the Caldwell Fire in Northeastern California loom over irrigated farmland near Tulelake. Farmer Scott Seus, who captured this image, says crops including hay, potatoes, onions and mint could be vulnerable to smoke damage from the fire.
Photo/Scott Seus
A firefighting helicopter draws water from an irrigation canal for use against the Caldwell Fire in Modoc and Siskiyou counties.
Photo/Scott Seus

While crews worked to finalize containment of a large wildfire in Northeastern California, farmers and ranchers predicted losses from the flames and from smoke that they expect will affect their crops.

The Caldwell Fire, burning in the region straddling Modoc and Siskiyou counties, was ignited by lightning July 22. As of our publication time Monday, the fire had burned 80,859 acres with 85% containment.

Farmers in the region responded quickly to alert neighbors and take precautions such as moving livestock and equipment, and irrigating planted crops.

Modoc County rancher Lucky Ackley said he saw "100-foot flame licks right at the farm ground" early last week.

"I thought it was going to be burning right up to our hay fields," Ackley said, adding that a change in wind direction gave him and others time to protect livestock and property.

"We got all of our animals off of the range behind the ranch, just to make sure that they were safe," Ackley said. "The fire did touch the ranch in a couple of places, but overall, it didn't hurt us much. We're just going to keep doing what we're doing and keep one eye over our shoulder to make sure there's not a fire coming our way."

In the meantime, Ackley said, he was trying to bale hay, while dealing with the hot, gusty winds that fueled the fire.

"The wind blew all the windrows away, so we raked it back up and the thunderstorm blew it away again, so we raked it all back up again," he said. "We got it to where we could start baling and it rained us out. It's just been crazy."

Modoc County Supervisor Ned Coe said the fire burned an area that had not been affected for decades.

"Anytime there hasn't been a fire in an area for 40 to 50 years, it creates monster fires that will consume 30,000 acres in a 10-hour period, which is what happened in this one," said Coe, who is a California Farm Bureau Federation field representative. "What could have helped prevent this inferno is additional grazing and managed, controlled burns to address the fuel load."

Farmer Scott Seus of Tulelake said irrigated farmland acted as a buffer that stopped the fire from spreading in certain areas. He said he expects some smoke damage to planted crops, including to hay, potatoes and onions.

"Smoke is going to limit the amount of sunlight, and it's creating opportunities for disease to get started in potatoes and onions," Seus said. "It's slowing the drying of hay and can change hay quality by making it smell like smoke."

The fire also complicated Seus's efforts to finish his second cutting of mint.

"Humidity is not good and can create mold in the mint," he said. "In the past, we've had mint rejected due to fires, and we were getting false positives for chemical residue because of a sulfur compound in the smoke."

Due to the smoky conditions, local health officials reported an air quality index in the hazardous range last week. That added another concern for farmers, Seus said, because of a shortage of N95 respirators that agricultural employers are required to offer to employees during wildfires. The masks have been in short supply during the pandemic and are being reserved as personal protective equipment for health professionals.

"You have to have them available, otherwise you have to send employees home, so this is a real problem," Seus said.

Bryan Little, CFBF director of employment policy and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service, said the shortage of N95 respirators due to the pandemic has not been addressed. Employers must comply with regulations when the air quality index for PM 2.5 is 151 or greater and the employer anticipates employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke.

Health-care employees understandably have a priority for the N95 respirators, Little said, which means employers in agriculture and other outdoor businesses do not have the required equipment. (See related story, Page 1.)

Farmers in the region pointed to another aspect of the Caldwell Fire: Damage to range and timberland also means the loss of wildlife habitat.

"You can't believe the amount of deer that have got pushed out by the fire and have moved to lower ground," Seus said. "That's a lot of ground to get burned without a lot of places for these animals to go. We've got all these programs through the government that incentivize farmers to develop habitat. It will take decades for this to recover."

Although a significant amount of Caldwell Fire damage will be to natural resources, Modoc County Supervisor Geri Byrne said direct losses to agriculture in the region remain uncertain.

"There are a few structures that have been lost, a couple abandoned homes were lost. (We're) not sure about crops lost, but there will be smoke damage to crops and some range ground affected," Byrne said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She 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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