By Christine Souza
Assistant Editor, Ag Alert
Reprinted with Permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation
As crews continue to battle wildfires burning throughout California and the West, farmers, ranchers and county agricultural officials survey damage and seek assistance. So far, timber, grazing and ranch lands appear to have borne the brunt of agricultural damage, and farmers say smoke remains a threat to winegrapes.
Damage-inspection teams from Cal Fire are assessing areas where fires have been mostly put out, according to information officer Christine McMorrow.
“Looking through our reports, the biggest threats and damages have been to grazing land and timber,” she said. “On the Creek Fire in Fresno County, (damage and threats) are to grazing allotments and high-value timber; in the Butte-Tehama-Glenn complex, there’s grazing land affected and olive orchards threatened; and in the Willow Fire in Yuba County, ranch lands are threatened.”
While noting the land-stewardship efforts ranchers and timberland owners undertake, McMorrow said, “Unfortunately, a lot of this is out of our hands, regardless of the stewardship that has been taken on those lands. These fires are just moving too fast, fueled by winds and getting into areas we haven’t cleared out in a long time.”
Lassen County rancher and timberland owner Hannah Tangeman-Cheney of Susanville can attest to how fast the fires move. She said her property burned on two separate occasions, both related to a lightning-strike fire that began in August.
The first fire damaged a part of her property and days later, a second fire ignited, she said, adding, “It was a really hot fire and everything that was burned that day is just decimated.”
Tangeman-Cheney, who said the property has been in her family since 1862, said the fires burned about 2,200 acres of timberland, including 1,600 acres of green-certified timber. She also lost 7,000 bales of hay, miles of fencing—including split-rail fence that was about 100 years old—plus “a beautiful, old, hand-hewn barn” built by her great-grandfather 150 years ago, and about 300 acres of wildlife conservation land.
“We had an 80% loss of the timber,” she said. “Most of it burned just incredibly severely; some of the trees don’t even have limbs, there’s just a black shell of the tree and 6 to 8 inches of ash; you don’t even see soil or needles.”
To protect her animals, which include cattle, sheep and a horse, she put them in a meadow, adding that she stayed in the meadow for six nights with the sheep.
Complimenting Cal Fire for saving her home and other structures, she said, “Cal Fire was amazing, but they had so few resources when the fire came through. They made a great line around the main part of the ranch.”
Tangeman-Cheney said she and her husband did fuel reduction on 400 acres of the property in recent months and worked on creating more defensible space. But, she said, “the fire was just relentless.”
“You have to be ready to save yourself. Protect your property the best you can and do every sort of ground clearing and anything you can to reduce fuel,” she said.
At the other end of the state in San Diego County, rancher Nathan Rakov said a fire started Sept. 5 about two miles from his ranch, where he raises pigs, sheep, chicken and ducks, and leases land for cattle grazing. He said he experienced “a lot of unnecessary stress,” due to a lack of ability to reach his property to take fuel to generators, in order to make water available to his 1,500 animals.
San Diego County Farm Bureau Executive Director Hannah Gbeh said the Farm Bureau is trying to coordinate with local agencies to put a system in place so that, in the event of fire, farmers can gain access to property to tend to or evacuate livestock or irrigate crops.
With a blanket of smoke and haze covering much of the state, grape growers express continuing concern about whether the grapes could absorb chemicals from the smoke that causes an off-taste in wine.
Lake County farmer Dave Rosenthal said laboratories that test winegrapes for “smoke taint” have been inundated.
“It’s gone from a five- or seven-day backlog to now a five-week backlog before we get results,” he said.
The problem with such delays, Rosenthal said, is that “the grapes need to be picked sooner than five weeks out. Five weeks is almost the end of harvest for 80% of the crop this year, so it makes it really hard to make a decision on whether to pick grapes or not.”
He said heavy or fresh wildfire smoke poses the highest threat to winegrapes.
“The smoke that we’re getting right now—and I think the whole state has it now—does not seem to be as big of an issue, so that’s good,” Rosenthal said. “I’m cautiously hopeful that most of the smoke that we are seeing is older smoke and the grapes will be fine, and it’s just going to be areas that are close to fires.”
County agricultural commissioners are coordinating efforts with the state Office of Emergency Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, with the goal of tapping federal and state resources for disaster aid as quickly as possible.
“Faced with the compound disasters of wildfires on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, county agricultural commissioners and their staff are working diligently on crop loss assessments. This typically takes weeks to months to gather all the data,” said Placer County Agricultural Commissioner Josh Huntsinger, who serves as president of the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association.
Huntsinger said it’s “vitally important” for farmers, ranchers and agricultural businesses to respond to county loss surveys, to help local officials secure disaster funding.
A list of California counties with wildfire disaster declarations may be found at www.fema.gov/disaster/4558.
Information on available USDA disaster assistance programs may be found at farmers.gov/recover or by contacting a local USDA Service Center, with a directory at farmers.gov/service-center-locator.