David Kaisel had completed his weekly trip to the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market in San Francisco, where he sells his heritage grain flours, and he was stuck in traffic on the way home. It was hot. The wind was blowing. And, Kaisel remembers, “it just had that ominous feel.”
“I had come to a stop in Vallejo when my landlord called and he’d sounded more than a little frantic. He said, ‘I think your house is gone,’” Kaisel recalls. “I knew it was hot out here, but I really didn’t think we’d be getting yet another fire. Sure enough, it came through.”
On June 8, 2019, the Sand Fire started in Rumsey, a small town in California’s Capay Valley about 60 miles northwest of Sacramento. The wildfire was extinguished only a few yards away from Kaisel’s doorstep, so his house was saved. But he lost his tractor, forklift, storage sheds, and a field of heirloom wheat—on the spot where a Cal Fire helicopter had landed.
His farm has since recovered, but the day of the fire—and the weeks that followed it—are still burnt in Kaisel’s mind. And he’s not alone.
Two years ago, hundreds of fires broke out on October 8 and 9 across the Northern California counties of Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Solano, and Sonoma. Thirteen months later, the Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise and killed 88 people, making it the deadliest fire in California history.
As fire season ramps up again in the state this month, and as a deadline for farmers to file reimbursement claims for their losses looms—many California farmers are still on the long the road to recovery.
An Ecological Crisis
“We’re talking about an ecological crisis that is being perpetuated by climate change,” says Evan Wiig, of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers and The Farmers Guild. “This is not just the occasional fire or flood we’ve seen in the past. We have a crisis at a global level.”
Although wildfires affect every state, the fires in California are larger, with more than 1.6 million acres burned in 2018 alone. The blazes are also getting more destructive, as human development further encroaches on formerly wild lands and some fire management practices add fuel to the fire.
“When you have a system where you do everything you possibly can to avoid fire at all costs, you end up getting these forests that are just totally overgrown, with a lot of underbrush,” says Wiig. “By preventing small, natural fires, you’re building this incredibly dense tinderbox, so when we have that one fire we do miss, it’s explosive.”
CAFF is doing what it can to help farmers in the state recover. Over the past two years, the group has funded $100,000 in grants to small-scale farmers and farmworkers affected by wildfire. The grants have been used for a variety of purposes: to replace farm equipment and fencing, to help recoup lost wages, and to make up for lost sales. One beekeeper was able to replace hives that he lost. In addition, CAFF has given at least $50,000 to the Undocufund, to support the undocumented farmworkers and other residents who are central to the farm economy in these counties.
While Kaisel is in the earliest stages of recovery, he is also preparing to clear space on the farm before the next fire. “I plan to get my own mower and really get on it as early as possible. This idea of defensible space is no joke,” he says. “I’ve been watering as well, and I’ve been a putting sprinkler on the yard and just trying to keep things a little green.”
He’s also advising other farmers to look at what they grow a little differently. “Think about what you’re planting around the periphery of your property. What are your irrigated crops? What are you dry farming? Assuming the power is going to be cut, do you have generators? Can you run your wells, or can you run your pumps and irrigate without [power]?”
For Wiig, sharing stories of fire survival is an important step. “You can read every book and online resource and go through the FEMA website and do as much objective research as you can, but nothing will really prepare you for what [wildfire] does,” he says. “Hearing stories from real people who have lived through it is absolutely vital.”
“Wall of Fire” in Paradise
On Paradise Ridge in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Noble family has been growing apples since 1921. But on November 8, 2018, the fast-moving Camp Fire swept over the canyon and quickly destroyed 11 buildings on the property.
“When it was time to go, there were flames shooting up about 100 feet in the air, and you knew if you stuck around, it was not going to be good,” Jim Noble recalls.
Jim and his wife, Laurie, loaded their vehicles with animals and possessions and left the farm only to encounter a wall of fire. “You’re in this black smoke and your headlights are on because it’s 11 o’clock in the morning but it looks like midnight,” he recalls.
The Nobles made it off the farm that day, and they spent the next seven months in a trailer parked near a friend’s home in Oroville. Since June, they have lived in a trailer on their own property. Although their buildings, equipment, and many towering trees were destroyed, 12 acres of apple orchards survived.
“From a philosophical standpoint, the trees produced; we had to do something with them,” Laurie says. “There was no way for us to provide pickers, the equipment, cold storage, etc. So the only answer looking at the trees was to let people come and u-pick.”
In late August, the couple decided to open Noble Orchard to the public on Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Hundreds of people arrived on Labor Day weekend, and now a few dozen families come out most weekends to pick Gala apples and other fruit.
“The trees are just loaded, hanging all over,” Jim says. “You can’t even drive a tractor on the road. Being the only apple orchard in town, there is an economic advantage in that… And we’ve got a lot of people who want us to come back.”
Back into the Burn Scar
A few miles south, TurkeyTail Farm is also struggling to come back. First-generation farmers Cheetah Tchudi and his wife, Samantha Zangrilli, spent nearly 10 years building the infrastructure for a diversified farm that produced lamb, pork, duck eggs, mushrooms, herbs, and cut flowers. Then came the Camp Fire, which roared down the canyon and eventually burned more than 150,000 acres across Butte County before it was declared contained on November 25, 2018.
“Typically, in the past, when we get evacuated it’s like two, three days maybe,” Tchudi says. “So you split a couple sacks of feed, leave a bale out, and you can feel pretty secure that you’re going to be home in a couple of days. But something about the Camp Fire, they couldn’t get it out, and even when they were starting to get to containment they were reluctant to let people back in.”
Tchudi received a special permit from the country agriculture commissioner, which allowed him back into the active burn area.
“I just drove straight back into the burn scar,” says Tchudi, who brought his sheepdog Haro to herd the livestock. “To my great surprise, all the sheep and pigs had survived. There was a big livestock trough that I’d filled with butternut squash that I’d gleaned from a friend’s farm. The trough had melted just enough that all the pigs and the sheep could jump in and out of it. [They had no access to water, and] that’s most likely what saved them in those few days, the moisture from those squash. Just serendipity there.”
Tchudi and Zangrilli lost their home, greenhouse, water system, and most of their equipment. Tchudi’s parents’ house survived on top of a hill overlooking the west branch of Lake Oroville. But the young couple are still living in an RV, with plans to move into a yurt this winter.
Still Recovering in Sonoma
Recovery takes time. Nearly two years after the Nuns Fire—one of the hundreds that broke out across Wine Country in October 2017—left a burn scar through Sonoma County, farmers such as David Cooper of Oak Hill Farm and Melissa and Austin Lely of Bee-Well Farms are still trying to put their businesses back together. The fire broke out just north of Bee-Well Farms and quickly spread to Oak Hill Farm, just three miles away, and beyond. Both families lost their homes, possessions, farm equipment and more.
Oak Hill has replaced “the one tractor we really needed,” Cooper says, and rebuilt the farm workshop—it took a year, and they rebuilt it in a new location on the farm—but it will take even longer for the workshop and the farm to feel full.
The workshop had been there since the 1950s or ’60s, and was “full of so many things,” Cooper says. “Some people would say it’s junk, but it’s so valuable to a farm—it’s bolts and pieces and broken-down parts so you can scavenge when something breaks. It takes years to accumulate stuff like that.”
“But insurance is tricky. You certainly don’t get enough money for what it costs to replace [equipment] today,” Cooper says. “So it’s a process to rebuild. It’s going to take at least a decade to really get back.”
The Lelys lost the house they lived in, their possessions, and their crops. But their livestock survived. So did their row-crop business, which this year includes a pumpkin patch that will be open to the public for the month of October.
Two years in, the recovery is still in progress. “It’s just endless really, with the loss of facilities, and trying to come up with a new plan and then also having put all of our resources into getting things back together,” Melissa Lely says. “But we’re not going to stop farming and we’re going to do the best we can to push forward with what we have and make it work. We’re very thankful that we’ve gotten the support to be able to keep doing this.”
The Lelys have some hard-earned advice for others recovering from wildfire. “Do the best you can to prepare and prevent, and have connections to the community. Stay calm and have a plan. Then it’s easier to take action instead of when it’s on top of you and you’re trying to figure it all out,” says Melissa.
“And have the supplies you need,” adds Austin. “If you’re on a ranch, have a chainsaw accessible. We had to cut trees every 30 feet to get anywhere on this ranch. A chain and a chainsaw can be some of the most important things.”
Every farmer we heard from spoke about the importance of community; they have all depended upon their neighbors for support and survival.
“Everyone around us, this whole community, banded together as one,” Austin says. “Nothing was off-limits to anybody. If we have it, it’s yours. If you have it, it’s ours. That was a remarkable thing, because we were all strangers at that point. And then the effect was that over the next couple of months everybody became stronger.”
“The stuff is just stuff in the end,” Cooper adds. “But community is irreplaceable.”
Longer versions of these interviews are available at CaughtInTheDrift.com/Climate.
Top photo: Kaisel’s vintage John Deere tractor was destroyed in the fire. He has since replaced it.
All photos © Joan Cusick.