CZU Lightning Complex fire destroyed buildings at Swanton Pacific Ranch
The CZU Lightning Complex fire destroyed buildings at Swanton Pacific Ranch, operated by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Photo Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

By Ching Lee, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation

Recent wildfires have burned some of the state’s educational and research properties, with university staff and officials still assessing losses and how to move forward.

An educational and research ranch managed by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo was perhaps the most notable college property to be hit, and wildfires also burned six reserves in the University of California Natural Reserve System.

The Cal Poly Swanton Pacific Ranch in Santa Cruz County suffered destruction to much of its property and structures when the CZU Lightning Complex fires swept through parts of Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties last month.

The 3,200-acre working ranch is known for its forestry activities, grass-fed beef program and organic crop production. As of last week, access to the ranch remained restricted due to ongoing spot fires, downed power lines and sinkholes, university spokeswoman Haley Marconett said. A full assessment of the damage, she added, will take weeks, perhaps even months.

Though cleanup has started, “it could take years for us to resume the level of production that we were at with some of our operations,” said Brian Dietterick, director of the ranch.

The historic research property was donated to the college in 1993 by late Cal Poly alumnus and Orchard Supply Hardware founder Al Smith, who wanted the site maintained exclusively for agricultural, recreational and educational purposes.

Seven of the ranch’s nine houses, used by university staff, students, guest instructors and other visitors, “burned to the ground,” Dietterick said. The infrastructure on the sites is being assessed to determine if they could be occupied with temporary housing and whether permanent facilities could be rebuilt at those locations.

In addition, two classrooms, along with computers and infrastructure that provided high-speed internet to the ranch, were completely lost. Dietterick said the university is initially looking to restore phone service and then internet to at least a portion of the ranch.

“There are a lot of things that are being thought about right now,” he said, noting that cleanup at each facility is “not as straightforward as it might seem,” due to potential hazardous waste and protocols that must be followed.

Though most of the ranch’s apple trees survived the fire, Dietterick said he doubts the orchard will open for U-pick, which typically starts around Labor Day weekend. Some of the crop may be recovered, he added, “but some of those decisions have yet to be made.”

Fewer than 50 head of cattle remained on the ranch at the time of the fire and were safety transported to the main campus; some of the animals have since been sold. The ranch typically runs about 300 head of cattle from January through June as part of its grass-fed beef program. Because much of the rangeland and water infrastructure for livestock burned, Dietterick said, it’s yet to be determined where the ranch’s resident herd will be housed in the long term.

“We’re currently assessing all the work needs and the ability to bring people back in a temporary-housing situation,” so they can work on projects such as restoring livestock water and tending to crops, he said.

One initial priority is to salvage the existing water system that delivered water to about 75% of the ranch for more than 10 years. Even though there is a well on the property, lack of power and destruction of several backup generators have made distribution of that water limited to one location initially. Dietterick said that means the ranch’s operations and educational programs would be “significantly scaled back for some time.”

Salvaging timber from the site will also need to occur within the first year, to ensure wood quality is not compromised, he added.

Research related to watershed and forestry after a fire will also be initiated “pretty quickly,” Dietterick said. Classes that study fire ecology and watershed management for erosion “will want to come here,” he said, though it’s unclear how soon the ranch will be able to accommodate that type of usage and learning, for safety reasons. It’s also uncertain how soon the ranch will be able to host field trips, which are normal activities during the academic year.

Dietterick said campus officials have made clear they intend to rebuild the ranch, a large part of which is covered by insurance.

Wildfires in the UC Natural Reserve System consumed nine buildings, a vehicle and acres of grassland, forest, chaparral and other natural habitat, said Kathleen Wong, spokeswoman for the system. Though there has not yet been official tabulation of setbacks to research projects conducted at the reserves, she said there could be “many” that have been interrupted or lost.

“Our severely understaffed reserves are literally still sweeping up the ashes and conducting safety checks,” she said.

The SCU Lightning Complex fires burned cables connected to soil moisture and temperature probes at Blue Oak Ranch Reserve in San Jose, severing connection to the data logger/transmitter, Wong said. In that case, experiments related to the UC California Heartbeat Initiative, which studies the availability of water in the state’s ecosystems, suffered a temporary loss of data from those instruments, she said. The cables can be replaced, she added, noting that the sensors themselves seem to have survived largely unscathed.

Other researchers have not been able to visit burned sites to monitor their experiments, due either to ongoing live fires or safety concerns, including damaged roads and facilities that were surrounded by fire and hadn’t yet been certified as safe for use, Wong said.

She said some UC scientists are eager to begin post-fire assessments on topics such as how fire has affected assemblages of aquatic invertebrates and anadromous fish populations and movements at Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve in Big Sur. Other UC scientists want to document the acres and vegetation that burned, to study post-fire regeneration, she added.

As for UC Cooperative Extension, Pam Kan-Rice, spokeswoman for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, said farm advisors and other extension specialists continue to provide service to farmers and other Californians. No UCCE offices had to evacuate or suffered property damage due to fire.

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