Some avocado growers' groves were severely damaged by the Thomas and Lilac wildfires in California, though overall volume throughout California is only down about 5%. ( Photo courtesy Albert Munoz/Mission Produce )

The largest wildfire in California’s history damaged a number of avocado groves and left some workers homeless before the five-week blaze was declared fully contained Jan. 11.

Called the Thomas fire, the blaze started in Santa Paula in Ventura County Dec. 4 and burned nearly 282,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

A second fire, called the Lilac fire, broke out in Bonsall in San Diego County Dec. 7 and burned 4,000 acres, including some avocado groves, before it was declared contained 10 days later.

The Irvine-based California Avocado Commission said the fires will cause only about a 5% decrease in this season’s volume projection, but a number of growers suffered significant losses.

“Some California avocado growers were severely impacted by the fires, experiencing devastating losses, both personally and in their groves,” said Jan DeLyser, the commission’s vice president of marketing.

“We continue to hold them in our thoughts as they work to recover and rebuild,” she said.

Los Angeles-based The Giumarra Cos. has a packinghouse in Ventura, said Gary Caloroso, business development director.

“The hill behind our packinghouse was on fire,” he said.

The facility was saved, but heavy smoke billowed throughout the area for at least a couple of weeks. 

“It was really horrible for the growers and the folks in Ventura County,” Caloroso said.

The company will replace any lost volume by sourcing from growers who were not affected by the fire. But Caloroso expressed sympathy for growers whose trees were damaged or destroyed.

“If you lose trees, it takes years to replant,” he said. “It’s terrible to think about.”

The Lilac fire destroyed a 7-acre grove owned by Del Rey Avocado Co. Inc., Fallbrook, Calif., said partner Bob Lucy.

Replacing those trees won’t be easy since avocado nurseries are overbooked until 2020, he said.

The company will stump many of the damaged trees and see if they regrow.

In addition, much of the irrigation system was melted or destroyed.

Replacing trees and repairing other damage will be a real project, he said.

Most of the company’s work crews are picking this year’s crop and don’t have time to tend to the burn area.

“We’re in a tough position,” Lucy said.

Despite the damage in San Diego County, Lucy said growers there were lucky compared to their counterparts in the northern growing areas.

“Some really very fine growers in Ventura County lost a lot of acreage, and a number of them lost their homes,” he said. “It was pretty tragic.”

Heavy winds also caused excessive fruit drop in some areas around the time of the fires, said Steve Taft, president and chief executive officer of Eco Farms Corp., Temecula, Calif.

“Everybody got hit by the wind,” he said.

There was some fruit loss, but there also is a slight upside, he said, since the fruit that remains on the tree has more room to grow.

 

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