Forging Ahead After the Flames By Darhiana Mateo

Weeks after the fires cooled, their footprint remains in the charred terrain,
like these desolate hills in Fallbrook. (Photo: San Diego County Farm Bureau)

The almost two dozen wildfires that raged through parts of Southern California in October have long since quieted. But their effects linger in the charred landscape, hundreds of acres of lost crops, and the minds of growers who saw their very livelihoods threatened by the flames.

The devastating Rice Canyon fire damaged approximately 200 acres of Kendall Farms' more than 500-acre operation, a grower/shipper of fresh flowers and greens in Fallbrook. Among the scorched crops were avocado trees, wax flowers and eucalyptus fields. All the irrigation infrastructure also went up in smoke, says Ed Castillo, director of sales and marketing with Kendall Farms.

Castillo recalls "all the employees fighting the fire side by side" after they were allowed back into the property. "I was with my pick and shovel and water hose. To watch the fires sweep in the canyons, it's amazing what life fire has. In some instances, we would see it go out and, the next minute, see it flame up to 30 feet. To be down there, in the smoke and the heat, we were virtually fighting for the survival of our jobs. You can't prepare for a fire like this."

Beyond the Dollars

San Diego County, a key agricultural region in the country — producing $1.5 billion in crop sales each year — was hit hardest by the wildfires and winds, although surrounding counties also were affected. The San Diego County agricultural commissioner estimated the agricultural losses at $42.6 million, not including substantial damages to irrigation equipment. The cut flower, nursery stock and avocado growers received the most damage, says Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

Although the 3-percent loss from the wildfires, which lacked any "rhyme or reason" and left behind a patchwork pattern of devastation, might not seem like a "huge number in the overall context of agriculture in our county," the personal impact was profound, Larson says. "It's important to note that to those growers who were damaged, they were damaged severely. To those people who were in the path of the fire, it was significant."

Many of the growers in the county are relatively small farmers who will have to grapple with economic losses for years, depending on how long it takes their crops to grow back. Some may be facing severe loss of business for a period of time, he says. "They're concerned about business plans. It's their livelihood."

But Larson says growers are not strangers to adversity. He has yet to talk to someone who has "thrown their hands up and given up." Instead, they're determined to tough it out as they always have. "That is what they do, all gone into this recovery mode, not a 'poor me' attitude."

Winds and Ashes

Weeks after the fires cooled, their footprint can still be seen in the terrain. "The hills are black — there's nothing there," says James Bethke, a floriculture and nursery farm adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension in San Diego, who surveyed the Rice Canyon and Witch Creek areas. "I was amazed at how much burned."

Bethke stresses that the fires themselves didn't cause all the damage; the extreme Santa Ana winds also tore down greenhouses, blew their roofs off and deposited large quantities of potentially deadly ash on vulnerable crops, such as poinsettias.

Scott Brown, owner of Browns' Plants Inc. in Encinitas, Calif., says the Witch Creek fire came within two miles of his property but never touched it: "Wind and ash were our main damage."

The winds wrecked havoc on the 35-year-old greenhouse structures, taking down 15 roofs and countless vents and sidings. Brown, who lives on the property, says the night the winds struck was: "Wild, crazy, noisy; fiberglass flying." The next few days they had to deal with the ash that had fallen over their foliage and poinsettia crops. They managed to blow the ash off the poinsettias but lost about 4,000 6-inch foliage plants.

A Spirit of Resilience

Mark Collins, owner of Evergreen Nursery, knows a thing or two about resilience. Evergreen is San Diego's largest wholesale nursery, specializing in growing large-scale landscape plants, with seven locations throughout the county. The unrelenting Witch Creek fire "burned right through the middle" of his 100-acre palm tree nursery in San Pasqual Valley. The 75- to 80-mph winds combined with the extremely dry weather and abundance of mulch in the property created a "100-acre barbecue," Collin says.

The palm tree nursery represents a quarter of Evergreen's inventory. About 75 percent of the property was damaged, and almost half of the damaged fields were a total loss.

How much, exactly? $400,000 worth of equipment, $200,000 worth of irrigation systems, and $4 million worth of damaged trees, some of which — like the hurricane palm trees — have an average crop time of seven years.

Although Collins says some of the anger that swept over him when he saw all the destruction still remains, he refuses to dwell on the losses. "I'm dying to get it all fixed," he says. "Someone breaks into your house and leaves a mess, the first thing you want to do is clean up the mess so you can't see it anymore. The fire made me mad; it left my farm that was absolutely beautiful in total disarray. But I don't care about things that are gone. I'm worried about things that need to go in there in the future. I'm not much of a looking back kind of guy."

Waiting Game

The first order of business after the fires died down was to repair the irrigation systems, the San Diego Farm Bureau's Larson says. "The ground was still smoldering, and I saw crews out in the field working on irrigation systems."

After that was taken care of, nursery growers quickly got to work cleaning up the burned material on site. But for many, the most frustrating part is the waiting game that follows. Before deciding which plants to prune, which plants to pull out and which to replace, growers like Collins are holding their breath and watching the blackened grounds closely for any signs of life. "The stock can rebound over time, or maybe not," Collin says.

At Kendall Farms, Castillo says that as of late November, shoots were already sprouting from the incinerated fields. They expect to start seeing green in two months, and harvesting in 6-8 months, he says.

The extent of the damage to the crops was nominal compared to what they had in production, he says. "We were very fortunate. You can't just sit there and cry."

Worth the Heartache

Brown, of Browns' Plants, says he knows he's one of the lucky ones. He even has a sense of humor about the fires. The hurdles come with the job, he says: "We have to laugh. Otherwise, you would be done. It's tough being a farmer, whatever kind of farmer you are. It's not an easy life. It's one you either really love or you don't. Fortunately, I love it."

And Collins agrees. It seems that lately, it's been one disaster after another for growers in California: the beetle infestation, the drought, water shortages — and now the fires, Collins says. "You just keep wondering whether it's worth it."

And is it? For Collins, the answer is a resounding yes. "It's all I've ever done. It's all I know how to do," he says.

Darhiana Mateo

Darhiana Mateo is associate editor for GPN. She can be reached at [email protected] or (847) 391-1013.

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