Califonia Bountiful

Good neighbors

September/October 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Farmland helps save lives and property amid devastating wildfires

Only the first few rows of this citrus orchard, part of Friend's Ranches in Ventura County, were scorched in last year's Thomas Fire. Agricultural lands, such as orchards, vineyards and grazed pasture, can function as a natural firebreak in a wildfire. Photo: © 2018 Daniel Dreifuss

Emily Thacher Ayala wants to fight future wildfires in Ojai with oranges and lemons.

"If you look around the Ojai Valley, citrus forms a great eyebrow of protection," said Ayala, whose family owns and operates Friend's Ranches in Ventura County. "If we could have 20 rows of citrus all around the whole valley, it would be a great benefit."

As the Thomas Fire burned in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last December, citrus orchards such as Ayala's functioned as a firebreak.

"They're subtropical, and they're fairly moist," Ayala said of citrus trees. "If you take an orange leaf and you put it in your barbecue, it takes a while to actually dry out enough to burn."

This can be a game-changer in fire-prone California landscapes. The Thomas Fire started last Dec. 4 near Santa Paula and, spread by strong Santa Ana winds, claimed 281,983 acres, becoming the largest wildfire in recorded California history until surpassed this August by the Ranch Fire that originated in Mendocino County.

In Northern California, the Tubbs Fire started in Napa County Oct. 8, 2017, and spread rapidly into Sonoma County, destroying 5,636 structures, many of them homes. The Atlas Fire started the same night and burned 51,624 acres in Napa County, destroying wineries and other structures. Together with several additional fires in the region that started about the same time, they claimed 44 lives.

Ongoing dry conditions and a carryover of dry vegetation set the stage for continuing wildfires throughout the state in 2018, such as the Ranch Fire, the Carr Fire near Redding and the Ferguson Fire, which prompted closures of Yosemite National Park.

"We don't call it fire season anymore," said Scott McLean, a Cal Fire deputy chief. "It's year-round."

Wildfire spews smoke and embers in the hills beyond vineyards in Calistoga in October 2017. In several reported instances during the fires in Napa and Sonoma counties, vineyards worked as a natural firebreak to protect human lives, property and animals. Photo: © 2018 Fred Greaves

A lifeline in the vines

As fire officials face the strain of a never-ending fight, a look back at last year's blazes points to a valuable ally: agricultural lands. Ayala is joined by farmers at both ends of the state who reported that irrigated farmland and grazed rangeland helped to slow the 2017 fires.

"If you have an irrigated, green plant, it's not going to burn like dry grass," said Johnnie White, president of the Napa County Farm Bureau, who's a vineyard manager and also a part-time firefighter in St. Helena.

"When you have trees and brush and tall grasses up to the vineyard, that's all going to burn very hot, very intense, very fast," White said. "And as soon as (the fire) hits that vineyard, it runs out of fuel."

White was on one of the first engines that responded to the Tubbs Fire. He described how a vineyard aided one rescue in Calistoga.

"As soon as we got there, we had people trapped at their residence," he said. "They couldn't get out. Luckily, there was a vineyard all along their driveway and we were able to drive all the way up into the house to get them out."

White also spoke of cases where vineyards acted as open-air shelters for those who found themselves cut off by the fast-moving fires.

"Irrigated vineyards are what they used to seek refuge … because you're not going to experience the heat or the fire movement as you would in natural conditions," White said. "Definitely saved lives."

And sometimes property: White mentioned one grape grower who had about an acre of vines planted around his house on Atlas Peak Road in Napa County. That vineyard served as something of a botanical moat the fire couldn't cross, sparing the house from devastation.

In Sonoma County, vineyard manager Steve Dutton saw the same thing.

"A managed vineyard next door, I think we've seen, is a benefit to the neighborhood, the neighbors," said Dutton, who's also president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. "We saw vineyards all throughout Sonoma County stop the progression of the fire and become natural firebreaks."

He noted that in one affected vineyard he manages in Santa Rosa, only 20 of 18,000 vines were lost to the fire.

Firefighter and vineyard manager Johnnie White, above, kneels in front of a Napa County home that was protected in 2017 from fire advancing through neighboring wildlands by its adjacent vineyard. Mowing the rows between vines, top right, helps prevent wildfires from spreading. Vineyard manager Steve Dutton, top left, cuts into a burned vine in Santa Rosa in 2017, finding it still living and green. Photo: © 2018 Kevin Hecteman top left, Photos: © 2018 Fred Greaves top right and above

Firefighter's friend

Rangeland that's home to livestock shares many of the same qualities, White said.

"We definitely saw, on well-grazed land, the fire intensity reducing dramatically, because the fuel isn't there," with the grasses eaten down low, White said. "It kind of acts in the same way."

Dutton witnessed the impact for himself last year: Ungrazed lands were burned "black right up to the fence line," he said. But the difference was starkly visible in a field that had been grazed.

"No black burn, nothing. The fire didn't even go through it," Dutton said. "Grazed land will protect itself. Wherever there's grazing happening, it's a good thing."

Cal Fire's McLean said a variety of agricultural lands emerged as valuable assets to firefighters in last year's fires.

One vineyard he saw "did a good job as far as slowing down the fire and kind of keeping it at bay," he said. "The orchards also give us access to get into these places, to be able to get our equipment in, as well. That is another benefit."

An onsite water supply is another advantage of having farmland close at hand, McLean said. In many cases, property owners have gone to fire stations to find out what kind of fittings the fire engines use, so these can be installed and firefighters can draw on aboveground water tanks when needed.

"That's the kind of communication we need to have with these properties' owners, so we can plug into their water supplies," McLean said.

The 2017 Thomas Fire burned right up to the edge of this citrus grove in Ventura County but no further, left. Farmers often install the proper fittings on irrigation pipes to allow firefighters to access the water, right. Photo on left: © 2018 John Krist, photo on right: © 2018 Fred Greaves

The aftermath—and the future

This is not to say that a vineyard or orchard is impervious. White said his company did lose one vineyard, due to hot and intense fire that surrounded the vineyard and cooked the vines.

Ayala is among the many farmers who had to replace plastic irrigation piping after sparks landed in the orchard and melted the lines. She also lost some trees at the edge of one Tango mandarin orchard. The fire stopped about four or five rows in.

Now, with the surrounding hills burned bare, Ayala worries about mudslides. But the trees may benefit the town there, as well.

"If and when the mudflow comes, the citrus can also form an erosion barrier," Ayala said. "I don't want to use my trees as a mechanism for catching boulders and mud, but it certainly can serve as that."

White said it comes down to doing what's possible.

"We can't control the topography," he said. "We can't control the weather. But we can control the fuel, whether it's irrigated farmland or it's properly managed and grazed rangeland, or even properly managed timberland. It makes a huge difference in these fires."

Kevin Hecteman

Graphic courtesy of Cal Fire.

Defending your home

It's not just a good idea to build a "defensible space"—a buffer you create between a building on your property and surrounding vegetation. It's the law.

A 2005 state law boosted the required defensible space around homes and structures from 30 feet to 100 feet, so as to improve the chances of withstanding a wildfire.

Cal Fire deputy chief Scott McLean said that, within 30 feet of the home, landscaping should be thin and noncombustible, using plants such as lavender or garlic. Dead branches and dead or dying trees need to be removed. Cal Fire recommends any wood piles should be at least 30 feet from the house, and any plants around them should be removed.

"Basically, you're just trying to stop the fire from promoting itself into these areas," McLean said.

Grass should be mowed down to 4 inches or less, McLean recommends. Cal Fire suggests using caution when operating such equipment, as a lawnmower spark can start a fire.

"You're developing a barrier around your home to slow the fire down—also enabling the firefighters to get in there and to be able to leave if necessary," McLean said.

McLean also recommended checking under decks, an area commonly used for storage.

You need to clean out from underneath there, as well as the vegetation, so it does not promote fire," McLean said.

From the 30-foot line to the 100-foot line, McLean said, trees should be trimmed to help prevent fire from moving upward into them.

Cal Fire recommends removing branches within 6 feet of the ground.

Cal Fire maintains a website at with preparation tips, and also offers a smartphone app to help people defend their properties against blazes. McLean said now is the time to act.

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