Southern California Wildfires Narrowly Miss Most Grower Operations

The Thomas Fire was uncomfortably close to Green Fuse Botanicals’ Santa Paula facilties, but the wind shifted the fire away and the company and its employees were safe. Photo by Steve Jones, Green Fuse Botanicals.

California’s historic wildfires caused mass evacuations and came too close for comfort for many growers in the state, but miraculously, most greenhouse and nursery operations and their employees were spared from damage. Here’s an update on the horticulture businesses in the affected areas.

The Thomas Fire

The Thomas Fire, Southern California’s largest and most destructive wildfire, had expanded to 230,000 acres at press time, spreading from Ventura County to Santa Barbara County, according to Cal Fire. The out-of-control blaze grew by more than 50,000 acres on Dec. 10, making it the fifth largest wildfire in modern California history, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Thousands of firefighters are still making headway against the vast fire, which is larger than all of New York City and was about 20% contained as of Dec. 11, Cal Fire reported. Nearly 100,000 people from the two counties have been evacuated.

The Thomas Fire was is burning on two fronts and forced the closure of Highway 101 and Highway 150 for hours on Dec.7, as flames burned on both sides of the freeway. It started late on Dec. 4 in Santa Paula, and quickly tore through Ventura toward the Pacific Ocean, then spread to Santa Barbara County on Dec. 10.

That flare-up on the western edge of the fire caused new evacuations and threatened areas near Carpinteria – a dense production area for the nation’s largest cut flower growers. According to a Dec. 12 release from the California Cut Flower Commission (CCFC), cut flower growers in the area were not harmed by the fire.

“We haven’t received any reports of production loss or farms lost due to the fires in Southern California,” said CCFC CEO and Ambassador Kasey Cronquist. “We’re in close contact with our farms in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Diego Counties, and so far, our farms are checking in as safe and continuing to operate.

The Thomas Fire appeared to come dangerously close to some farms and nurseries; however, farmers in Carpinteria Valley confirmed that the fires seemed closer than they actually were.

“Everybody is still in business, there have been no losses to farms as far as I know,” reported David Van Wingerden, owner of Westland Produce Inc., to the CCFC. “It’s business as usual for Carpinteria-area flower farms.”

Lane De Vries, CEO of The Sun Valley Group, reported on Dec. 8 that both of its cut flower farms were faring well.

“At the Oxnard location, we are seeing much smoke to the north of us, but the farm is fine,” he said.

On Dec. 7, the CCFC announced it had created an interactive online map that shows which of the nearly two dozen flower farms cut flower farms in the path of the Thomas Fire. Visit the CCFC website and follow CCFC on social media for ongoing fire updates on California’s impacted cut flower growers.

Steve Jones, CEO of horticultural breeding company Green Fuse Botanicals, released a photo of the blaze near the back of the breeding company’s Santa Paula greenhouses on the first night of the fires.

“I was up that [next] morning and, although there was still lots of smoke, the fire had passed,” Jones said. Green Fuse’s facilities and employees were alright, Jones said.

Checking in with Ball Horticultural Co. on Dec.7, PanAmerican Seed President Anne Leventry said all of the company’s people and homes were safe, and so were the company’s facilities.

“At this point, all of our people are safe and their homes are, as well,” Leventry said. “Our facility is okay. The fire was really close by, but the winds blew it north of us. As the fires are still not contained and high winds are predicted for a few more days, we cannot say for sure the danger is over for our people or our facility, but we are all hopeful.”

On Dec. 11, the news from Leventry and Ball Horticultural Co. remained positive.

“Good news as of this weekend, all of our employees are back in their homes!” Leventry said. “No one experienced any damage to their home or property. Our facility in Santa Paula appears to be out of fire danger at this point as the fires have moved north now. The fires have reached Santa Barbara County and are moving north. Employees from our operation in Guadalupe are able to see the glow of the fire and we are experiencing ash coming down on the greenhouse. However, the fire is still quite a distance south from Guadalupe and the firefighters appear to be gaining some level of containment of the fire, so we remain hopeful that we will not experience any damage to any of our locations as a result of this fire. We are very thankful to all the brave and hardworking firefighters who have really fought these severe fires and saved so many people and structures. Thanks for your ongoing interest. It has been really a serious situation.”

The Lilac Fire

In northern San Diego County, where authorities named the brush fire that sparked along a highway interchange near Fallbrook and Bonsall the Lilac Fire, the widespread fire destroyed 4,100 acres since Dec. 7, threatening 5,000 structures in its path. As of Monday, Dec. 11, the fire was 90% contained and all evacuations were lifted.

By Dec. 10, winds had died down enough and the Lilac Fire had been contained to 50%, but were still too close for comfort for many San Diego County operations, reported Nicole Jackson of TRL Company, who was checking in on accounts and friends through the trying ordeal. There was an extreme wind advisory in effect for all of Sunday, but the winds never picked back up, Jackson said.

California WildfiresIn San Diego County, Jackson said she estimated 50 to 100 nurseries and their employees were under mandatory evacuation, along with more than 100,000 residents on Dec. 7-8.

“The fire grew from 5 to 1,000 acres in a seeming instant Thursday afternoon and by Friday morning it had burned just over 4,000 acres,” Jackson said.

Jackson provided updates on all the area operations she’d been in contact with over the weekend. At press time, the only nursery reporting damage was Yatsuda Nursery in Bonsall. The rest of the area’s greenhouses and nurseries had miraculously been spared, though the fires came extremely close.

“It was very intense for countless growers and employees in San Diego,” Jackson said. “The 76 Highway riverbed the Lilac Fire burned is one of the densest horticultural areas of the country.”

One of the biggest concerns during the fire evacuations, outside of the obvious safety of people, wildlife, and properties, was getting to the properties to water plants, as many nurseries were without power or employee access, Jackson reported on Dec. 8.

Greenhouse Grower checked in with a number of growers when news of the fires fueled concern.

Color Spot Nurseries’ Purchasing and Development Director Michael Treiber reported on Dec. 11 that its Fallbrook location, which was evacuated on Dec. 7, had been spared.

“We were able to get back on the facility this weekend,” Treiber said. “No fire damage, a little wind damage. As of today we have no employees reporting damage. So far we have been extremely lucky.”

The facility was evacuated on Dec. 7 and still under mandatory evacuation with no access to the facility on Dec. 8. The Fallbrook location is one of Color Spot Nurseries’ largest facilities, producing annuals and perennials. At the time of the fire, it had shipped 80% of its poinsettias for the season.

“Unfortunately, we have many employees who live in that area, as well. We do not know the status of their homes as of now, either,” Treiber said on Dec. 8. “I wish I could give you better news, but it’s pretty chaotic now. The weather isn’t helping, either.”

Treiber, who lives in Carlsbad, 30 minutes north of the fire, said his house smelled of smoke and that the fire had been devastating to the area.

Janet Kister of Sunlet Nursery in Fallbrook said all of her employees and their homes were fine, and the fire had come within 1.5 miles of the nursery, “well within ember range,” she said.

“We were under mandatory evacuation due to the high winds spreading embers,” Kister said on Dec. 11. Winds died down yesterday afternoon and most evacuation orders lifted. One access road to the nursery is still closed, but there are two other roads people can use to get in.”

On social media, Kister said the operation was even able to get its orders out after the evacuation.

Altman Plants and The Plug Connection were also marked safe from the fires. On Dec. 8, COO Matt Altman had reported that his family’s nurseries and employees were in the path of the Lilac Fire.

“It is threatening a number of our nurseries and many of the people working here have had to evacuate their homes,” Altman said. “So far we don’t have any damage, but all of us that have nursery in this area are staying vigilant.”

CCFC reported the Lilac Fire came close to Mellano & Company’s cut flower farm near Oceanside, as well, causing evacuations and road closures, but by Dec. 9, the power was back on and the Mellano family was able to report that no crops were affected.

Check back to GreenhouseGrower.com for ongoing updates on California’s horticulture producers as we receive them.

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