Farmers in Wildfire Zones Assess Impact

Taylor Hillman Environment, Grapes

Wildfire Impact

By Kevin Hecteman

As firefighters worked to gain ground on wildfires ravaging several Northern California counties, farmers and ranchers began, as one put it, “to take inventory and figure out what we can do.”

In many cases, that meant assessing the impact on North Coast vineyards and trying to harvest the grapes left on the vines when the fires hit.

Mendocino County farmer Frost Pauli, who serves as a volunteer firefigher, said the powerful fires were “like nothing that anyone in this part of California has ever seen.”

Pauli serves as a captain of the all-volunteer Potter Valley Fire Department; his brothers serve as firefighters and their father, Bill, is fire chief.

“There was absolutely no stopping the fire” that erupted near Potter Valley, Frost Pauli said.

The first two days of the fire fight focused on saving homes, Pauli said; after that, attention turned to saving the town’s water supply.

“That project is the old wooden penstock and is 109 years old,” said Pauli, president of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau. “So after the homes were safe, this became the next highest priority: making sure the water supply for our valley didn’t get cut off.”

Farmers and ranchers in Mendocino County were hit hard, he said.

“There were a lot of ranchers that lost livestock and lost a lot of fencing,” Pauli said. “Barns were damaged by winds or burned down. There were a lot of vineyards that were burning or affected by smoke. We don’t even know the full extent at this point. Everyone is now finally starting to take inventory and figure out what we can do and what the next steps are, to move into recovery stage.”

In Sonoma County, Steve Dutton, president of the county Farm Bureau, checked late last week on one of the vineyards he manages near Santa Rosa’s devastated Coffey Park neighborhood.

“We saw evidence where the fire had burned right up to the road,” he said, “and actually into the vineyard a little bit, and scorched some of the leaves and vines—almost looked to me like it would be an early frost on the vines.”

Though some leaves on the affected vines were dead and dying, Dutton cut into a cane and cordon arm and found the plants were alive and green, which gave him reason for hope.

“What I see that’s going to happen is that we just have to prune these vines and re-establish the cover crop,” Dutton said. “The vines are going to be fine. I think that they’ll have a crop next year.”

The vineyard had been harvested about a week earlier, he said, and the healthy plants may have slowed the fire’s spread.

“The vineyard is actually alive, green and growing,” Dutton said. “It’s a live plant, not dried wood.”

He said it would take “intense, intense heat for the vines to actually combust and burn.” The cover crop of grass, mowed down to a couple of inches between the rows, also helped.

“We saw evidence where that had burned to a certain spot and then stopped,” Dutton said, adding that the heat from the burned cover crop was “enough to singe the leaves, but not enough to burn the vines.”

Dutton considers himself fortunate, and knows others are worse off. Many in his area haven’t been able to check on their properties because of evacuation orders, he said—and thousands in Santa Rosa and surrounding areas have lost homes, businesses and jobs.

Pete Opatz, a Napa-based vineyard manager, said about 30 of his properties were affected by wildfire.

“Our tracts of land tend to be larger,” Opatz said. “They’re kind of self-insulating. The vineyards will burn on the periphery; however, they’re a pretty good firebreak.”

In some areas of eastern Napa County, straw was laid down near new plantings for erosion control.

“We’ve had that straw catch on fire and carry the fires into the fields,” Opatz said, with about 20 acres affected. “It’s not horrific, but it’s still not good. We’ve most likely lost those plants.”

With some vines still to be harvested, Opatz was looking for all the help he could get.

“We’ve mobilized a lot of machinery from around the state to come in and get this done this week,” he said. “We’ve looked to other vineyard management companies around the state, just like fire services look to other folks, to get up here and give us a hand. We’re taking grapes up to a couple hundred miles away to get them processed.”

Smoke taint on grapes represents a lingering concern for Opatz and other growers.

“The sooner the fruit leaves the field, the less impact is likely,” he said.

Near Atlas Peak, cattle rancher Bill Bishop was dealing with a devastating loss. One of his ranches was overrun by fire so quickly that some 40 head of cattle perished.

“We’re lucky to get out with our lives,” Bishop said. “We went up there, and we opened the gates up and cut the fences, tried to get the cattle as free as we could.

“It was the biggest flame-storm you ever saw in your life,” he said.

Relief efforts for farmers and livestock are ongoing.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau is coordinating donations of feed and supplies for livestock and horses. The Farm Bureau office has secured a storage yard and is gathering feed and hay for distribution to affected farmers. Monetary donations are also being accepted. To donate or to request assistance, contact the county Farm Bureau at or 707-544-5575.

At Western United Dairymen, CEO Anja Raudabaugh said 15 dairies in Sonoma County and two in Mendocino County had been evacuated.

“We have evacuated almost 4,000 cows,” Raudabaugh said. “We’ve managed to kind of share spaces with neighbors. The Sonoma County Fairgrounds is teeming with livestock right now.”

WUD also launched a supply drive for people and animals. Donations should be brought on Oct. 20 to the WUD office at 1315 K St. in Modesto. WUD will have trucks available that day to haul donated supplies to Sonoma County.

Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at Associate Editor Steve Adler contributed to this report. Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.