San Diego Growers Assess Fire Damage

While hot spots are still smoldering, we are pleased to report most of the growers in San Diego County are out of harm’s way. This week, local grower associations and University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) are working with growers to assess damage and get them back on their feet again.

“There are still some burning hotspots, but they are in remote wildland areas and people, homes and nurseries are not threatened,” says Eric Larson, executive director of San Diego County Farm Bureau. “The county department of agriculture has reported there are 11,428 acres of agriculture with the footprints of the burn areas of the several large fires. That is not to say it was all destroyed. The random nature of the fires left many things untouched within the footprints. Of that acreage, 800 were outdoor cut flowers, 45 greenhouses and 750 acres of nursery stock. From my observations and what I have heard, a fraction of those totals will prove to have been destroyed. We are probably still a few days away from having dollar figures on damage.”

Avocado groves took the biggest hit due to the fact that they are heavily grown in the fire area and are on hillsides, which results in tremendous heat as fires move uphill, Larson says. Many citrus and avocado growers also produce ornamentals, notes James Bethke, floriculture and nursery farm advisor for UCCE San Diego. “The Rice Canyon fire burned through the Rainbow and Fallbrook areas, where there are a great number of small operations. From the 15 freeway, you can see burned palm nurseries and saran houses. The other was the Witch fire that started near two major tree nurseries then burned into the developments of Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Santa Fe.”

Larson says growers who suffered the most damage had permanent crops such as protea, banksias, wax, lepto and eucalyptus. “In the field, it appears those crops were very flammable and with high wind gusts driving the flames, it is no surprise that those crops would not survive,” Larson says. “We have heard reports from growers who lost between 20 and 80 percent of their plantings. In fact, when Governor Schwarzenegger was looking for a location to see the greatest damage to farms, he went to Kendall Farms in Fallbrook. Kendall grows the crops mentioned.”

Bethke also was in awe of the damage at Kendall Farms. “I was able to see the farm and the whole canyon from a good vantage point and it is nearly a complete loss,” he says. “The entire canyon except for one home looks completely gone. I spoke to an avocado grower who watched the fire burn right through Kendall Farms on the way to his avocados. He lost 200 avocado trees, several hundred azaleas in a shade house, then his house. His neighbor lost a portion of his shade house, some potted plants and several specimen palms planted along his driveway.”

Greenhouse Operations OK

Larson says he has heard no reports of greenhouse damage. “It appears the damage to nursery stock will largely be on the fringe portions of nurseries in the burn areas,” he says. “My observation is that the potted crops were not as flammable and flames did not carry through the nurseries. However, I did observe some palms at a nursery that were planted in the ground and they’re completely gone, just a few hundred charred stubs sticking out of the ground.”

Growers also sustained secondary damage because they could not get past evacuation lines back into their nurseries to irrigate their crops, Larson adds. “There was great local concern about possible looting in evacuated areas and security was tight. Growers couldn’t breach it to get back in to irrigate. We talked to one nursery operator who lost 100 percent of his nursery stock because the community water system went down in the fire and he had no access to water once security was lifted.”

The good news, so far, is there will be government assistance, Bethke says. “Just about anyone who is someone has been here to offer assistance–the governor, the feds, the local supervisors,” he says. “As I have driven some of the areas, I have run into representatives from the governor and Senator Diane Feinstein. The governor was visited Fallbrook yesterday to see if the National Guard were still needed there.”

Along with San Diego County Farm Bureau, the California Cut Flower Commission and San Diego County Flower and Plant Association are taking stock of the local growers with losses. Clean up has been put on hold until a full assessment has been made.

“As a group, the UC Cooperative Extension will be helping the county and the growers get up and running again as fast as possible,” Bethke says. “They will certainly need help networking to get the plants growing and producing again, and we have a serious reduction in ag water (30 percent) that we will have to deal with to compound the problem.”

Larson says the farm bureau is acting as the central information point for growers who may need to know what resources are available to get themselves back on their feet. The bureau is posting daily updates at www.sdfarmbureau.org.

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