(Oct. 26) As residents of Southern California fled fire-ravaged areas, media reports of up to 20,000 acres — about a third of the state’s acreage — of avocado trees being damaged painted a grim picture in late October, but grower-shippers and the California Avocado Commission cautioned against writing off the upcoming season.

Produce industry losses were hard to come by, primarily because many of the nearly 500,000 mandatory evacuees were still not being allowed to return to the area as of Oct. 25, and grower-shippers in many cases were unable to see how much of their acreage was damaged.

Jay Van Rein, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Sacramento, on Oct. 23 said the California Office of Emergency Services reported 20,000 acres of avocadoes had been destroyed, but he could not confirm the number. The figure was also being spread by Associated Press and other media.

“I’m trying to put this AP story to rest,” Guy Witney, director of industry affairs for the Irvine-based California Avocado Commission, said Oct. 25. “They looked at the acreage and misinterpreted a quote by an ag official who is probably in a lot of trouble now.”

Whitney said he tried to fly over the area by helicopter to see for himself what the damage was but that there was too much smoke.

Marc Doig, owner of Sage View Trading, Poway, Calif., which was at the heart of the Witch Creek fire that had charred 190,170 acres as of Oct. 25, lost his entire citrus packing facility, field trucks and harvesting equipment, and with 30 acres of organic lemon groves. He said his vegetable ranch east of Poway had escaped damage but that fires had recently shifted direction.

Steve Taft, president of Eco-Farm Corp., Temecula, Calif., said Oct. 24 that he had been fighting fires for three days, trying to protect groves of organic and conventional avocados, as well as organic oranges. He said about 150 acres of avocado trees in Fallbrook, Calif., were destroyed.

“There’s not only fire damage, but the wind damage is huge,” he said.

Earlier in the week, Witney said strong Santa Ana winds had knocked an estimated 35 million pounds — 10% of the state’s production — of fruit to the ground.

Peter Changala, vice president of agriculture for Newport Beach, Calif.-based Irvine Co., a supplier for Calavo Growers Inc., Santa Paula, Calif., said fires swept through the company’s 1,000 acres of avocados.

“We can’t tell how much of the damage was caused by the fire or by the hot winds,” he said. “They’re literally dried out.”

He said power lines to all of the irrigation pumps had been destroyed.

“We’re focusing on getting the irrigation system going. Then we’ll take a look at the damage and crop losses,” he said.

Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, San Diego, which has its warehouse and offices in Otay Mesa, Calif., near the Mexican border, was never endangered by the fires, but it did see a drop in trucks coming to the facility for its Mexican-grown tomatoes.

“A lot of buyers were calling from the chains trying to find out how to get down here,” said Tom Lyons, salesman. “I think some truckers from L.A. and Arizona might not come, but we are able to load and ship product.”