Notes from the CEO
When the Thomas fire erupted Monday night in the mountains north of Santa Paula, several Farm Bureau board members and I were in Garden Grove for the 99th annual meeting of the California Farm Bureau Federation. By Tuesday morning, as we learned of the unfolding crisis at home, most of us had abruptly checked out of our hotel and headed back to Ventura County.
What we found upon our return was sobering. The past 72 hours have been difficult ones for our friends, family and colleagues in the hard-hit cities of Ventura, Santa Paula and Ojai, as well as the rural areas around them. Our community has been fortunate in that few, if any, lives appear to have have been lost. This stands in stark contrast to the eerily similar firestorm that raged through Sonoma and Napa counties in October, leaving more than 40 dead. Nevertheless, hundreds have lost homes and thousands have been displaced.
Besides urban and suburban residents, it's also been a difficult time for farmers, ranchers, and the men and women who work for them. On Wednesday, I drove along the path of the fire where it had raced across the foothills from Santa Paula to Ventura, and damage was evident. By my rough estimate, several hundred acres of avocado groves north of Foothill Road were damaged or destroyed by the flames, as were several homes. It's probable that many more acres, and possibly other ranch homes and structures, were damaged also in Santa Paula, Wheeler and Aliso canyons. Those areas remain inaccessible, however, and until the danger ebbs it will be difficult to know for certain.
Additionally, many citrus and avocado operations are located in the hilly countryside west of Lake Casitas along the Highway 150 corridor, where a branch of the fire broke loose Tuesday and drove toward Carpinteria. And Wednesday night, as the fire swept into the Ojai Valley and scorched hillsides north and west of Ojai itself, many citrus, olive and wine grape plantings were at risk. Again, the extent of damage will not be known for several days at least.
Even growers not directly affected by flames have suffered losses. The powerful east winds that have driven the flames also knocked a great deal of fruit to the ground across the entire county. And even berry and vegetable growers on the coastal plain were affected, as the widespread power outages that accompanied the wind-driven firestorm caused pumps and irrigation systems in some areas to fail. In the face of single-digit humidity and desiccating winds, that left many crops - particularly recently planted strawberries - vulnerable to damage.
Because of smoke and ash from the fires, air quality from Santa Paula and Ojai to the coast has been terrible, and this has put the health of farm workers at risk. Ventura County Public Health Officer Dr. Robert Levin
contacted me yesterday, expressing concern about the continued presence of so many workers in the fields under such dangerous conditions. Although sympathetic to the growers' need to get crops harvested and the workers' need for a paycheck, he offered sound advice for the industry:
ep workers out of the fields while the air quality is so poor or at least require them (and observe them for compliance) to wear a respirator like an N95 mask. The air quality can be considered unsafe if one can either smell smoke or see ash, even fine ash, falling. For the worker who says he or she cannot breathe with a mask on, these are workers with underlying lung or heart conditions and they should be sent home. As for how frequently to change masks, please refer them to the brand name of the mask on Google or in the package insert. Masks should also be changed when the worker finds that it is getting difficult to breathe after he or she has been wearing it for a while. These masks can be purchased at hardware stores or pharmacies."
The California Strawberry Commission issued similar guidance to berry growers on Tuesday:
Smoke is widespread and air quality should be considered unhealthy in areas directly impacted by smoke. If your area is impacted by smoke, people should avoid outdoor activity, and measures should be implemented to ensure worker health and safety due to unhealthy air quality. Detailed information about the use of N95 respirator masks is contained in the Cal/OSHA notice on Wildfire Safety Notice for Employers:
To this I would add the suggestion that any growers or labor contractors who have not already done so should be buying the masks in bulk and providing them to their workers. Local labor advocacy organizations are also doing this, but the industry should be taking the lead in guaranteeing worker safety.
In addition, the Emergency Conservation Program
provides funding and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters. Producers located in counties that receive a primary or contiguous disaster designation are eligible for
low-interest emergency loans
to help them recover from production and physical losses. Compensation is also available to producers who purchased coverage through the
Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program
, which protects non-insurable crops (including native grass for grazing) against natural disasters that result in lower yields, crop losses or prevented planting.
Like so many of you, I and members of my immediate family have been evacuated several times this week. It's been frightening and disorienting. We are fortunate, however, that our homes remain undamaged, we have had places to stay, and we are all safe. So many others have suffered so much more. The staff and leadership team at Farm Bureau of Ventura County are heartsick about the losses suffered by members of our community, and we send our sympathies and best wishes to all of you.
- John Krist, CEO
Farm Bureau of Ventura County