(Oct. 23) SALINAS, Calif. — As wildfires continue to threaten communities from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara, more than 250,000 people are still being urged to stay clear of the more than 15 separate fires that continue to devastate residential areas, businesses and orchards.

Despite spotty news of burned avocado orchards and up to 35 million pounds of the fruit knocked to the ground by harsh Santa Ana winds, Jim Donovan, vice president of international operations at Mission Produce Inc., Oxnard, said the avocado supply outlook is still positive.

“The good news is because of the globalization of avocados, Mexico picked up the ball after the January freeze here and an even worse freeze in Chile and has run with it since early this year,” he said. “They will make up a good chunk in 2008 as well.”

He said there will be plenty of fruit all the way through to the Super Bowl in early February.

“Chile will be back with some fruit, California and Mexico will be the mainstay and we’re in New Zealand too,” he said. “They’re on board September through December. This year we’re estimating around 10 million pounds, and we handle about 95% of that deal.”

NOTHING CONCRETE

Reports on Oct. 23 continued to be mixed regarding possible damage to the avocado crop because only emergency crews are being allowed into the burned areas, said Jay Van Rein, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

“Nothing’s concrete, but we know there’s been a lot of damage to the avocado orchards,” he said. “Secretary (A.G.) Kawamura has contacted all the ag commissioners down there and several are involved in setting up the damage-assessment process.”

Guy Witney, director of industry affairs for Irvine-based California Avocado Commission, said damage was evenly spread throughout north San Diego County, particularly around Escondido Valley Center and Fallbrook, where there is a high concentration of small family-owned avocado growers.

“We know a lot of growers lost their homes, and we’re working on making sure everybody is taken care of,” he said. “The rough estimate of around 10% (loss of the 350 million-pound crop) still stands because in talking to people who stayed behind they said fires went through the groves at ground level, burning the leaf litter and the irrigation lines, but most of the trees are pretty much intact.”

Witney said many orchards are next to Bureau of Land Management lands, where chaparral burned uncontrollably, and the first few rows were lost.

He said the Irvine Co., Newport Beach, which has more than 1,000 acres of avocado trees, escaped major damage to its trees, but lost much of its irrigation equipment to the fire.

WORKERS KEPT OUT

Ernesto Arana, field representative for Prime Produce International LLC, Orange, said at least two growers in Escondido and Highland Valley lost their orchards. He wouldn’t estimate the amount of acreage.

“I spoke with the grower and he confirmed one of his groves got burned in the Ramona fire,” he said. “From wind damage we’re probably looking at somewhere between 25% and 30% of the crop on the ground.”

He said packinghouses around Temecula were idle because workers were being kept out of the area, and because no product was moving prices were up slightly.

On Oct. 22, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger requested President Bush declare a state of emergency for the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura.