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Thomas Fire: First Estimate of Agricultural Losses Tops $171 Million

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thomas fireAs firefighters in Southern California worked to achieve full containment on the Thomas Fire, agricultural officials in Ventura County issued their first estimate of damage to crops and farm structures, reporting that losses will exceed $171 million, with more than 70,000 acres of cropland and rangeland affected.

The Ventura County agricultural commissioner’s office based its initial assessment on information about agricultural locations within the perimeter of the fire, which started on Dec. 4 and grew into the state’s largest wildfire, burning nearly 282,000 acres as of late last week.

In a preliminary disaster report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales estimated more than 10,289 acres of irrigated cropland and another 60,000 acres of rangeland in the county had been affected by the fire. He estimated the cost of the damage to current and future crops, machinery and equipment, dwellings, service buildings and other structures at nearly $171.3 million, with avocados and citrus crops suffering the highest losses.

The estimates do not include wage losses of farm employees, the report said, and “nothing can measure the pain and suffering of the farmers that have lost much of their livelihood.”

A more-exact assessment won’t be completed until late spring to early summer, Gonzales said, as his office continues to conduct on-the-ground surveys and receive surveys back from growers. What’s uncertain at this point, he said, is how well the tree crops will recover.

“The rather complicated part about damage on avocado and lemon trees is that the damage isn’t readily apparent,” he said. “You can’t really tell the damage until sometime in the future.”

Farmers will have a better idea in the spring, when their trees either bloom or won’t bloom, Gonzales said. Even then, they won’t know the extent of the trees’ recovery until summer, when they can evaluate the crop itself. Aerial photography, he noted, will allow officials to see crop damage as it manifests.

In Santa Barbara County, which was also affected by the Thomas Fire, Assistant Agricultural Commissioner Rudy Martel said it will be a few more weeks before his office can provide an initial damage assessment. He noted it had been less than two weeks since mandatory evacuations in the region had been lifted, and growers had just begun to return to their properties.

“The growers have not been in contact with us,” he said. “We rely on their information, and it takes them a while to get those numbers to us because they’re trying to get back into production, to start their business back up.”

He said he hopes a grower assistance workshop in Carpinteria later this week will provide the office its “first opportunity to touch base” with growers and gather initial damage estimates.

In Ventura County, the fire has so far cost avocado growers an estimated $10.2 million in losses, Gonzales reported. The county has about 18,500 acres of avocados, with 6,603 acres affected by the fire and 1,250 acres that suffered damage. Some 4,030 tons of fruit have been lost.

For citrus fruit, the county’s lemon crop saw more than $5.8 million in losses, with 7,591 tons of lost fruit. Of the county’s 14,800 acres of lemons, 1,767 acres were affected by the fire and 400 acres were damaged. Oranges suffered losses of about $3.4 million, while the cost to mandarins reached $491,022 and grapefruit losses totaled $35,930.

Other affected commodities include vegetables, with damage and losses totaling $4.6 million; miscellaneous fruit, $1.4 million; nursery crops, $1.4 million; strawberries, $486,416; rangeland, $480,000; apiaries, $139,500; hay and grain, $129,345; cattle, $125,000; cut flowers, $61,966; and raspberries, $55,420.

thomas fire

The preliminary estimate of nearly $171.3 million in agricultural losses in Ventura County from the Thomas Fire includes $25 million in lost farm machinery and equipment.
Photo/John Krist

Ventura County farmers and ranchers also face costs to replace and repair destroyed or damaged buildings, equipment and other structures. Gonzales estimated the fire destroyed 260 agricultural dwellings, service buildings and other structures. Another 215 buildings and structures suffered major or minor damage. Together, they were valued at a loss of $113 million.

The report estimated the cost to replace farm machinery and equipment at $25 million. Cost of land damages, including cost to replace trees, reached $3.4 million, while loss of irrigation systems totaled another $1.1 million.

“There were many homes, many structures that were lost,” Gonzales said. “Our very water-efficient irrigation systems, because they’re made out of plastic, melted, so all of those will have to be replaced.”

Restoring irrigation systems is critical, he said, because of the region’s ongoing drought conditions and lack of precipiation this season. Using water trucks is not an option, he added, because of the large number of affected acres that need watering. Because of high demand, he said there’s been a local shortage of irrigation components, and some growers have had to order them or go out of the area to buy parts.

Mallory Salant, district manager of Fruit Growers Supply in Santa Paula, said the fire led to skyrocketing demand for certain items.

“Aboveground irrigation parts are flying off the shelves,” she said. “A couple of days after the fire started, we were completely out of stock and it was very chaotic in the showroom.”

Irrigation tubing is currently the most sought-after item. At other times, a typical order might be 10 or 20 rolls of tubing, she said, but now farmers are ordering 200 to 400 rolls because they need to replace all of the tubing on their farm.

Despite the high demand, Salant said the store has managed to “stay on top of it” by working with vendors to restock quickly.

“At this point, our shelves are full,” she said.

by Ching Lee, assistant editor of Ag Alert/credit California Farm Bureau Federation