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Deadly Freeze to Cost Growers Millions : Weather: The second night of cold temperatures pummeled avocado and citrus crops in Ojai Valley, Santa Paula Canyon and other areas. Inspectors begin adding up the economic damage today.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Relentless icy temperatures caused millions of dollars in damage to Ventura County’s extensive avocado and citrus crops, as the arctic cold front crept through farmland in the worst freeze since 1968, agricultural experts said Sunday.

Temperatures plunging to the low 20s early Sunday, and the teens in a few spots, wreaked havoc in cities across the county, causing ice-cracked pipes to flood dozens of houses, schools and businesses. It was the second night of damaging temperatures. The mercury dropped to the teens and 20s in parts of the county early Saturday morning.

“Last year’s freeze was nothing compared to this,” said Terry Schaeffer, an agricultural meteorologist at the National Weather Service based in Santa Paula. “This is the worst one we have had since 1968.”

The areas hit hardest Sunday morning were in the Ojai Valley and Santa Paula Canyon, where temperatures hit a low of 21 degrees, Schaeffer said. Grimes Canyon, north of Fillmore, and the western part of Ventura also had subfreezing temperatures, he said. But winds elevated temperatures in much of the Oxnard Plain and Santa Clara Valley from Saticoy to Piru to just above the critical 28 degrees that damages crops.

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Late Sunday, meteorologists anticipated another night of unusually cold weather--slightly less cold than Saturday and Sunday mornings, but still potentially lethal to portions of the county’s $806-million farming industry.

Today agricultural inspectors will begin visiting groves and packinghouses to assess economic losses from the freeze, said county Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Dave Buettner. He said the industry would have no estimates of crop damage for weeks.

“I’m sure it’s going to be in the millions,” Buettner said.

But farmers who have spent three bone-chilling nights in their orchards said freezing temperatures devastated at least a third of their harvest and predicted that it would lead to tough times in the industry, which also suffered frost damage last year.

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The weekend’s freeze knocked blooms off strawberry plants, blistered young lettuce plants and severely damaged avocados and citrus fruit, in some cases just weeks before harvests were scheduled to begin, farmers and agriculture specialists said.

Buettner said a freeze damages plant cells “just like if you leave a Coke in the freezer. They’ll just explode.” Some avocados and tree foliage were already turning brown on Sunday despite the efforts of farmers who used smoky smudge pots and churning wind machines to keep cold air from settling on their crops.

Clear skies and stagnant air masses early Saturday and Sunday mornings sent the mercury dipping to 16 degrees in parts of the Ojai Valley and to the mid- and low-20s in other sheltered areas.

Only a few hours of temperatures below 28 degrees is enough to severely damage frost-sensitive fruit and flowers, Schaeffer said. In Ojai, National Weather Service instruments measured temperatures at 25 degrees for more than 11 hours into Sunday morning. In Santa Paula, temperatures stayed at 25 degrees for 10 hours.

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Although overnight temperatures were expected to rise slightly early this morning to the low- and mid-20s, some low-lying areas and others with stagnant air will still be vulnerable to frost, said Steve Burback, a meteorologist with WeatherData Inc.

High clouds that moved into the county Sunday night will clear by Tuesday, and temperatures will warm steadily through Christmas Day, he said.

Ventura County Fire Department officials received at least 30 calls about broken water pipes caused by freezing temperatures, and water agencies answered even more complaints. Cracked pipes at the Church of Christ in Ojai flooded the church. Water leaks also occurred at Thomas Aquinas College, north of Santa Paula, and Villanova Preparatory School in Ojai.

But the greatest damage came to the county’s $55-million avocado crop, the third largest in the state.

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Some avocado growers had hoped that a good crop this year would allow them to capitalize on high prices driven by last year’s frost damage. But some saw an entire harvest wiped out, agricultural officials said. The destruction was in part caused by a swift fall in temperatures, but was spurred by dry conditions and a sudden drop in wind. At one point in Santa Paula Canyon, temperatures fell 10 degrees in less than half an hour, when winds halted.

“It was amazing how it dropped so quickly,” Schaeffer said. Some farmers spent thousands of dollars trying to salvage crops, while others watched helplessly as temperatures dropped to damaging levels. Some gave up in the middle of the night. “Instead of throwing good money after bad, they just decided to cut their losses.”

Ventura County’s rapidly expanding fresh flower and nursery industry also faced the prospect of severe damage to buds nearly ready for harvest. “If they’re in an area where the low temperatures were, you’re going to have major losses,” Buettner said.

For some, the chill was compounded by mechanical failures in wind machines, used to circulate cold air with warmer currents, and smudge pots that had to be kept burning from dusk to the morning .

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Tom Pecht, a grower who owns 125 acres of avocado and citrus orchards near Oxnard, said the breakdown of some wind machines at 4 a.m. Sunday morning heightened his frustration.

“After running wind machines so long the night before, we started having mechanical problems,” Pecht said. “The stress on all the mechanical parts is real high.”

Pecht estimated that he lost at least 30% of his avocado and citrus crop, and maybe more. “We had major damage in the avocados. The lemons, it’s hard to tell.”

Pecht said he will spend this week examining his trees to determine which were severely harmed by frost. He said he expects to see his groves filled with the telltale signs of decay: brown fruit dropping off trees and curling brown or black leaves.

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“It’s kind of frustrating,” he said. “First you get mad, then you get upset, then you kind of resolve to the fact that you’ve done what you can and there’s not much you can do.”


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