Industry waits for smoke to clear to assess California fire damage

Photo courtesy Ventura County Fire Department

Industry leaders are waiting the smoke to clear before making any definitive damage assessments after a raging wildfire hit one California’s key hubs for avocado and lemons.

Wildfires in Ventura County began Dec. 4 continued to be active through Dec. 7, fueled by the fierce Santa Ana winds.

The “Thomas wildfire” in California’s Ventura County scorched tens of thousands of acres and was still moving Dec. 7.

The fire was moving west and north toward Santa Barbara County, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department said Dec. 7, with high winds in Ventura County expected until Dec. 9.

Ventura County is home to about 18,500 acres of avocados — about 34% of California total acreage — and groves did sustain some damage. 

Tom Bellamore, president of the Irvine-based California Avocado Commission, said Dec. 7 that the fire was still active in avocado growing areas in Ventura County. Several avocado growers and industry members lost homes in the fire, he said. 

“I have been in the industry for quite some time now (more than 20 years) and this is the worst I’ve seen in terms of fire affecting avocado farmers and their crop,” he said.

Avocado acreage lost to the fires is likely to be in the hundreds of acres, though Bellamore said more accurate estimates won’t be known until the wind dies down.

“We’re hoping, by Dec. 11 if the fire subsides, to get out and look at the areas impacted and get a better assessment,” he said.

Because widespread avocado harvest in California is not expected until February, it is uncertain how the fires may affect normal marketing of fruit.

 

Lemons

California Citrus Mutual was connecting with growers in Ventura County to assess damage, said Alyssa Houtby, director of government affairs for California Citrus Mutual, Exeter. Ventura County grows about 80% of California’s lemon supply.

While no crop estimates are available yet, she said some growers have reported loss of farm structures and farm worker housing.

She said California Citrus Mutual plans to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency to assist growers’ efforts to rebuild structures.

 

Swift moving

“The fire started (Dec. 4) at about 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. near one of ranches up Santa Paula Canyon and within two hours it was at our main ranch,” Alex Teague, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Santa Paula, Calif.-based Limoneira Co. said Dec. 5.

The night of Dec. 4, the fire moved at least five to six miles per hour, pushed on by wind gusts of 40 to 70 miles per hour, he said. 

The fire destroyed 12 of the buildings housing Limoneira’s guest workers, though nobody was hurt in the blaze, Teague said.
Lemon crop damage was expected to be minimal and packing resumed Dec. 6. The company continues to ship product, he said.

“The thing we are most thankful for is nobody is hurt, that’s the main part,” Teague said.

On Dec. 7, Teague of Limoneira said the company has been fully operational since Dec. 6, but continues to fight spot flare ups on various ranches.

An avocado marketer also said the fire only temporarily interrupted its operations. 

After power outages Dec. 5, Rob Wedin, vice president of sales and fresh marketing with Santa Paula, Calif.-based Calavo Growers Inc., said all the firm’s facilities were not harmed by the fire and all three in Santa Paula were operating with normal power as of Dec. 7. 

“Avocado groves don’t burn easily, which is a positive,” he said. “They have some damage, but it is way too early to tell how much.” 

Despite wildfires and smoke along major freeways in Southern California, the company has been able to make deliveries to retailers in Los Angeles.

The firm is doing some repacking of Mexican avocados, but California avocado harvest has not yet started. Wedin said California avocados volume will start in a light way Dec. 12, with larger volume expected by Jan. 16.

The fire was moving west and north toward Santa Barbara County, a spokesman for the  Ventura County Fire Department said Dec. 7, with high winds in Ventura County expected until Dec. 9.

 

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