On Tuesday night, Judith Redmond was alarmed by the thick brown smoke that clouded the air as she drove the 75 miles back from the Berkeley farmers’ market to Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley. By Wednesday morning, she woke up to the ridge surrounding the valley engulfed by an inferno—part of what has become known as LNU Lightning Complex Fires—creeping dangerously close to the valley floor. Weathered by the 2018 County Fire, Redmond began to think logistics: how would she ensure the safety of her workers and neighbors with health conditions and animals that need to be moved?
Others, like rancher and organic cotton grower Sally Fox wouldn’t get the chance to ask themselves that question. Fox had to evacuate her farm and relocate her animals that same night.
And as the group of fires tore through nearby Pleasant Valley, the small farming community woke to abrupt knocks on their door giving them 10 minutes’ notice to leave. Alexis Koefoed of Soul Food Farm, whose farm was previously damaged in a 2009 fire, begged authorities for an extra 10 minutes to let out her livestock, certain they’d be gone by the morning if she did not.
Miraculously, they survived, though many of her neighbors weren’t that lucky. Girl on a Hill and Castle Rock Farm were just several of the farms that had their entire operations wiped out. As of Sunday evening, the LNU Lightning Complex Fires have burned more than 341,000 acres in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties, impacting agriculture communities known for diverse family farms, destroyed 845 structures, and killed 4. The fire is just 17 percent contained, and ranks as the second-largest blaze in state history.
In the South Bay, the CZU Lightning Complex Fires have burned 67,000 acres and forced 77,000 people in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties to evacuate as of Sunday evening, including directors Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail of Pescadero’s Pie Ranch. The farm lost its historic 1863 farmhouse, which housed apprentices in its nonprofit training program.
The Molino Creek Farming Collective, an organic farm run by several families in Davenport, lost “everything but the tomatoes.” In a Facebook post on Friday, a representative for the farm wrote, “All of our people are safe. The fire burnt some people’s homes and not others. Much of our infrastructure is intact but we lost most of our fence posts, some of our water tanks, lots of our orchard, some outbuildings, etc.”
Farmers who are lucky enough to be able to stay on their land find themselves responding to the fire while keeping up with essential daily farm duties. On Friday, Judith Redmond said she was keeping a close eye on the voluntary evacuation orders, while her crew has stayed on the farm, starting work early to evade scorching heat and ending early to limit working in the toxic smoke. It’s peak harvest season, and they have to keep produce moving.
“Farms are living entities, which means you can’t just turn them off and come back later when things have calmed down,” says Evan Wiig, director of communications at Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), a nonprofit organization that advocates for sustainable food and farm policy. The recent heat wave, which has brought 100-degree days to many California farms, makes the crops especially vulnerable, says Wiig. A single day of irrigation could mean catastrophic loss.
Farming is a precarious line of work even during normal times, with razor-thin margins and inconsistent weather patterns that are only becoming more extreme. Add to that a global pandemic that has forced farmers to reroute supply chains and put workers who live and work in close quarters at high risk of contracting the coronavirus. Now, the fires have made these ongoing pressures worse for many California farms, pushing many to the brink.
“Farmworkers and farmers are having to work in these conditions when they have been putting their health on the line with COVID,” says Anthony Chang, director of Kitchen Table Advisors, a nonprofit that helps small, sustainable farms develop business practices. The only upside? At least many farmworkers are already used to wearing masks.
Some rural farms have the advantage of being surrounded by vast expanses of wildlands that buffer structures from a raging blaze. But isolation can also put them at a disadvantage as unincorporated regions often rely on volunteer fire departments.
“The people that save the structures in the [Capay] Valley are the volunteers and the locals,” says Redmond. That’s especially true this year, with a delayed response from a beleaguered state fire agency, which has been battling nearly 600 blazes with a smaller crew than normal thanks to a COVID-driven shortage of inmate labor.
“The volunteer fire departments have been defunded and have not gotten their share of various monies that they should have had,” says Redmond, who also chairs a local committee to prevent fire in the Capay Valley. “It’s a problem that has been building and developing. . . . Climate change has a lot to do with it.” For these reasons, it took two days since the blaze erupted for the state level fire fighters to come to the valley, says Redmond. Compared to the rapid response with aircraft firefighting they saw two years ago, this year’s response has been notably different.
Dan McCloskey, a firefighter from the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) and part of a strike team of 20 SFFD firefighters on five engines sent to fight the LNU Lightning Complex Fires, told Civil Eats that 96 percent of Cal Fire personnel are already deployed to fight fires. He added that fire crews from up and down the West Coast—Washington, Los Angeles, and elsewhere—are present and more are arriving all the time to fight the nearly 600 fires that have started in the past week. But they’re still shorthanded due to the number and magnitude of fires burning in the state.
Power outages swept the Capay Valley during the week and over the weekend, complicating an already challenging evacuation for many. Many rural farms depend on well water, which can only be pumped with electricity. Power outages mean no irrigation and no refrigeration for harvested produce and eggs.
Still, some farmers are worried about more than getting through this fire season. Will Holloway runs Blue Leg Farms, a 10-acre plot in western Santa Rosa, in the North Bay, that has been ravaged by major wildfires in recent years.
“As we do less and less to manage our wildlands, [fire risk gets] progressively worse,” says Holloway. “We saw it starting with Lake County for five years. And now here for five years. And absolutely nothing has changed in the way we’re managing our wildland.”
That reality hits hard for farmers planning for the future. Holloway plans his farm around summer harvest, but now that fire season comes every year, he plans to start introducing more early-harvest produce into the mix so that there’s less at stake in the dry season.
As we do less and less to manage our wildlands, our fire risk gets progressively worse.
“People act shocked when it happens earlier and earlier,” says Holloway. “These are like once-in-a-lifetime events, which are happening every year now.”
For many Indigenous peoples of California, the fires are wiping out entire harvest seasons, threatening their food security. Fire is an integral part of many Indigenous stewardship practices, but the intensity of fires greatly limits hunting and gathering opportunities. “California is a natural fire landscape,” says A-dae Romero-Briones, director of the Native Food and Agriculture Program at the First Nations Development Institute. “The Indigenous people who would go and gather right now are being affected because the fires are so intense because stewardship practices, like low-grade cultural burning, haven’t occurred in years.”
The importance of Indigenous practices is not lost on Pie Ranch’s Nancy Vail, who wrote in a Facebook post describing the devastation the fire wrought on her farm, “May this be the beginning of transformation, may we resolve to bring back Indigenous knowledge, heal the damage done since colonization, bring justice to the lands and the people, build resilient homes for all people, practice climate-friendly everything, feed people, love more.”
CAFF’s Wiig says the fires are forcing farmers to find new ways to be more ecologically and financially resilient. CAFF has been advocating for strategies farmers can take to prepare for fire season, including diversifying crops and clearing defensible space. Insurance is another important step, though many small farmers can hardly afford exorbitant insurance costs. Small as they are, Wiig underscores how important these steps are in the long run.
“What we do on our farms and how our food system operates ultimately affects the resilience of our communities in situations like this,” says Wiig.
Editor’s note: For readers who want to help, Central Valley community members are maintaining and sharing a list of crowdfunding pages for farms, families, and individuals who have been affected by the fires. CAFF has also launched a 2020 Fire Fund to support affected farmers and communities. The First Nations Development Institute also just launched a California Tribal Fund to support California Indigenous groups.
Top photo: A barn at Pie Ranch in Pescadero that burned during the 2020 California wildfires. (Photo credit: Jered Lawson)