“The fire has burned almost exclusively in the hills, so the effect has been mostly limited to rangeland and avocado orchards, which often are planted on hillsides and usually are the first things scorched when a wildfire comes down out of the hills,” says John Krist of the Ventura, Ca.-based Farm Bureau of Ventura County. Last Monday night, he notes, the Thomas Fire swept from Santa Paula to Ventura. “And it burned through an area with thousands of acres of avocados. I’d say at least several hundred acres were damaged or destroyed, and I expect that number to grow as we regain access to the burned-over canyons that run back into the hills,” Krist says.
A blaze comes dangerously close to a crop.
As of Friday, the fire spreading towards Fillmore was also putting more orchards at risk. “Additionally, the branch of the fire that pushed up the coast toward Carpinteria also burned through an area with many citrus and avocado groves, so I’m sure there was some damage there,” Krist says. “I suspect there also were losses in the orange and mandarin orchards on slopes above the Ojai Valley, where the fire burned on Wednesday night. But access is limited and the smoke is so thick right now, it’s impossible to even see the hillsides from the valley floor.”
However one grower, Allied Avocado & Citrus Inc. is reporting for now relatively little damage. “The fire touched the crops in upper Ojai--a little bit of the lemon crop,” says Allied’s Hunter Klein. “It might affect this upcoming crop but the trees are still young. They’re not going to be putting out too much fruit. They’ll recover and next season should be fine with maybe a bit of a dip in the crop.”
Other growers such as Calavo Growers Inc. in Santa Paula, Ca., say it’s too early to assess the damage.
However, over at the California Avocado Commission (CAC) based in Irvine, Ca., early estimates are out. “I’m talking to more and more growers there and there have been a few hundred acres impacted,” says the CAC’s Ken Melban.
What's left behind after the fire.
While fires burning through crops and singeing fruit is a concern, the wind on its own has also done damage. “We also suffered significant losses due to fruit drop caused by the powerful winds that drove the fire,” says Krist. “It will be some time before growers can fully assess how much of the current crop they lost this week, in part because damage can take some time to fully manifest itself. But that impact will much more widespread than the area directly affected by fire.”
The problem, adds Melban, is that it’s hard to know right now how damaged the crops actually are. “The difficult thing is until a grower can go into their groves, they can’t be certain as to what the level of the impact is. It can work either way,” he says. “You may think you’re significantly impacted and once you get into your grove, maybe you just realize it’s some singeing. But conversely you could think we escaped the brunt of it but then you get in, based on the high temperatures, even though you may not have visual damage, it can wreak havoc too.”
Along with actual crop damage Krist adds that there are other future concerns as well. “A big concern will be to repair irrigation systems damaged or destroyed by flames, so growers can keep those trees healthy. It’s extremely dry right now, and wind makes it worse,” he says. “Unless those trees are kept hydrated, they’ll drop fruit and leaves. We also need to be concerned about debris flows, slides and other problems later this winter once rain hits those denuded slopes.”