Avocado grower Chris Taylor has seen plenty of wildfires in his decades of farming the rugged canyons above Santa Paula. But none was as wild as the one that whipped through South Mountain Road this week, destroying half his ripening crop.
The veteran farmer lost about 300,000 pounds of the pear-shaped fruit to the fast-moving Simi fire, which also wiped out a barn, boat and ranch equipment. Now he worries that trees scorched by fire on his 60-acre spread will never bear fruit again.
“I’ve never seen one come as quickly as that. It was like a tornado blowing through the orchard,” said Taylor, who suffered second- and third-degree burns to one leg while he was scrambling to put out the flames. “I think anyone with an orchard near this blaze probably took a beating.”
Ventura County farmers have been pounded in recent days as flames charred scores of trees, singed thousands of acres of farmland and blistered a bounty of backcountry crops.
Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail said farm losses were nearing $8 million as of Wednesday, but the number could climb as more complete damage assessments roll in. Some farmers may qualify for federal disaster assistance under an emergency order issued Monday by President Bush, McPhail said. That figure includes losses from the Piru and Simi fires.
The citrus-rich Santa Clara Valley sustained the heaviest losses, totaling nearly $4 million. Of the 15 crops that sustained damage, avocados were hardest hit, with losses totaling more than $3 million. Preliminary estimates put damage to lemons at $766,000 and farm structures at $53,500.
McPhail said that previous fires in Ventura County have caused more crop damage.
But at a time when many growers are being squeezed by plummeting prices and rising production costs, McPhail said the last thing they wanted was another obstacle to overcome.
“They didn’t need this, no question about it,” McPhail said. “I’ve never seen a fire like this in the 25 years I’ve been here. This has just been unreal.”
It wasn’t just flames doing the damage. Strong Santa Ana winds that drove fires from Simi Valley to Santa Paula also knocked fruit and citrus off trees, leaving produce to spoil on the ground. And in the aftermath of the fires, ash drifted like gray snowflakes onto farm fields, causing another headache for growers.
Vegetable grower Bill Coultas said a fire that raced through Santa Paula on Sunday morning singed some of his celery crop along the Santa Clara River. But since then, he said, his biggest problem has been the layers of ash that have settled on his produce.
“It gets down inside the plant and it’s hard to wash out,” said Coultas, who was running his sprinklers overtime in an effort to cleanse the celery stalks. “But it’s just a marketing problem. Our damage has been minimal.”
Farmland on the eastern end of the county was also scorched, including dozens of acres of lemons and avocados north of Moorpark owned by the Schwabauer family.
Walking through those groves Wednesday, where blackened trees bore shriveled fruit and the ground was gray with ash, fourth-generation farmer David Schwabauer told of watching a three- to four-mile wall of flame march from the north toward his family ranch Saturday afternoon.
“It was truthfully one of the scariest moments of my life, because I knew it was coming and there was nothing I could do about it,” said Schwabauer, president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.
Workers turned on water in the groves and dug in to protect ranch homes. Six hours later, flames were racing through the ranch, charring about 50 acres of lemon and avocado trees, melting miles of irrigation line and causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.
Schwabauer, 42, said there have been fires in the rural area before, including a giant fire in 1969 that had been the benchmark by which all other blazes were measured. After this week’s fire, that is not the case anymore.
“This is the new benchmark,” said Schwabauer, who has now turned his attention to the urgent business of restoring water service to his groves and assessing damage to his trees to determine how many may eventually bear fruit again.
“But quite honestly, I feel pretty lucky,” he said. “Yes, we lost trees. Yes, we lost some of our crop and it’s costing us money. But I have a pillow and a bed to go to sleep on. You really have to keep a big-picture perspective.”