SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The 2020 California wildfire season is looking ugly — and it’s only August.
A spate of wildfires, many ignited by lightning, burned hundreds of thousands of acres in Northern and Central California — damaging and threatening crops and livestock throughout the region.
One series of blazes, the LNU Lightning Complex, ripped through parts of Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Solano and Yolo counties.
Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said one dairy farmer was caught behind the lines.
“He’s sheltering in place,” Tesconi said. “We’re making sure milk trucks get to him, and hay trucks.”
Her office also worked to allow crews into vineyards within evacuation zones, where grapes were ready for harvest, she added.
“This is very reminiscent of the 2017 fires in Napa,” said Ryan Klobas, chief executive of the Napa County Farm Bureau.
He said the office has been working to help people find shelter and whatever else is needed.
Tom Gamble, who has rangeland near Lake Berryessa and grows winegrapes in the Napa Valley, said he lost 6,000 acres of rangeland but was able to save ranch buildings. In fact, the fire that caused the damage bears his name: the Gamble Fire.
“It was because we called it in,” Gamble said.
The fire and six others merged into the larger Hennessey Fire, according to Cal Fire.
“Because of all the multiple lightning strikes, Cal Fire and local resources were very strained,” Gamble said. “Fortunately, we’ve been through this before, and we had time to bump up our existing defenses.”
That involved reinforcing fire lines, work he carried out with his ranch manager while the rest of the family evacuated.
“We were up all night just patrolling some of our structures that are not consolidated at the main headquarters, to make sure they didn’t burn,” Gamble said, adding that the animals on the rangeland belong to a tenant and were safely herded into the corrals.
Solano County cattle rancher Jeff Dittmer said the fire is “going to be devastating to the folks that have been running cattle,” noting that it scorched its way from Fairfield up to Guinda and Capay Valley, and had nearly surrounded Lake Berryessa.
“If you’re running cattle up there, you’ve got nothing to eat now, and won’t until next spring,” Dittmer said. “My guess is that if you try and feed yourself out of the problem, you’re going to go broke buying feed.”
Dittmer said cows involved in a cow-calf operation stay put year-round, “and their job is to have a calf each year,” usually in the fall.
“Hopefully, you have somewhere else you can take them that isn’t burned,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re going to have to make some tough decisions on which ones you keep and which ones you don’t. If you run stocker steers over the winter, you’re just not going to do it this year.”
Near Winters, farmer Bruce Rominger bulldozed firebreaks around his property and told a sheepherder to be ready to move the flock to row-crop land if needed. His wife, Robyn, said Cal Fire came to the ranch to backburn rangeland from Monticello Dam to Esparto.
“Our rangeland was just to the east of the fire line that Cal Fire set on this LNU Complex Fire,” Bruce Rominger said, and noted the fire would have come onto his property if not for Cal Fire’s efforts.
“It gets up in the really rugged stuff, and then they really can’t do much about it, but down in the lower hills there’s farm roads that they can use as fire lines, and they just backfire from those roads,” he said.
Before then, he was up in the hills on a bulldozer, seeking to prevent structures, including a 19th-century windmill, from being burned.
In Monterey County, the River Fire and Carmel Fire burned hills west and southwest of Salinas, but no agricultural operations were directly threatened, said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. Smoke from fires was drifting toward the county’s winegrape-growing region, raising concerns about smoke taint, he added.
Cathy Gomez, marketing director for the Salinas-based Markon produce cooperative, said smoke made tough conditions for harvest crews and ash was falling on row-crop vegetables.
Smoke from the fires sent Air Quality Index readings around Northern California and the Central Valley into unhealthy territory.
The Farm Employers Labor Service, an affiliate of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said state regulations require employers to provide N95 masks or equivalent respirators when the Air Quality Index reaches 151 — unhealthy for sensitive groups. FELS noted that N95 respirators have been in short supply because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rominger, whose crews have been harvesting tomatoes and almonds, said he handed out new masks as air quality worsened.
“Everybody has a reusable mask they’ve been wearing because of the COVID, but we gave them all N95 masks because the smoke is bad,” he said.
In response to the widespread smoke, the California Department of Food and Agriculture worked with the Office of Emergency Services to acquire 1 million N95 respirators from a state stockpile, which are being distributed to farm employers through county agricultural commissioners.
In Fresno County, the agricultural commissioner’s office partnered with the Fresno County Farm Bureau to distribute masks. Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of the county Farm Bureau, said his office handed out more than 35,000 respirators last Friday, the first day of distribution.
Merced County Agricultural Commissioner David Robinson said his office also began distributing N95 masks late last week.
“We certainly want to get these into the hands of farmworkers and farm laborers that are out there working in the smoke right now,” Robinson said. “As long as the air quality is bad, we’re going to keep handing these out.”
Gamble said the latest round of wildfires underscores the need for more and better vegetation management.
“I don’t know how many of these we have to go through before it dawns on people that we need more of a public-private partnership to reaffirm the value of vegetation management, and reaffirm the necessity of using fire as a tool before it becomes a weapon against us,” he said.
— Kevin Hecteman, California Farm Bureau Federation
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