County farmers already worried about upcoming drought-related restrictions on their water use were dealt another blow last week when wildfires wreaked havoc on their crops.
In North County, where the majority of San Diego’s crops are grown, wildfires grazed over areas already damaged from the effects of January’s freezing temperatures. At the time, damages to area crops prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency, a measure that assists farmers in receiving federal aid.
President George Bush declared a state of emergency Oct. 23 for all of Southern California, freeing up federal aid and paving the way for farmers to become eligible for federal loans.
Dawn Nielsen, a spokeswoman with the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, said the agency would work in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency to coordinate relief efforts.
She said local assistance centers would be set up in affected areas across the county to provide farmers with information regarding how they might recover any costs lost to fire damage.
“We’re discussing with the FSA now how soon they’ll be able to have people in the field,” she said.
Following the 2003 Cedar and Paradise fires it took field representatives approximately three weeks to a month to assess the damages, she said, and there was no estimate of how long it might take this time.
Farming is the county’s fifth-largest industry accounting for $1.5 billion in 2006, about 4.6 percent less than the prior year’s value, with an estimated economic impact of $5.1 billion, according to county figures. San Diego County has 6,565 farms and ranks No. 1 in the nation in terms of production value of avocados, flowers and nursery products.
San Diego County farmers grow more than 200 different agricultural commodities, from the strawberries grown along the coast to apples in the mountains.
“I’m sure when all is said and done, each one of those particular crops will be affected by the fires,” Nielsen said.
Leon Santoro, general manager and winemaker at Orfila Vineyards & Winery, located off San Pasqual Road in Escondido, said he returned to the vineyards in the wee hours of Oct. 22 to find the company’s entrance sign burnt, its irrigation equipment destroyed and a trailer home nearby demolished.
“We were surrounded by the fire , basically, one on three sides,” he said.
Fires scorched approximately 200 of Orfila’s merlot vines on the eastern side of the property, causing damages Santoro valued at about $25,000, but left the rest of the 70-acre estate unscathed.
“I’m very happy,” Santoro said. “This is a miracle.”
Lisa Culver, executive director of Project Wildlife, a nonprofit San Diego animal rescue and rehabilitation agency, said the agency had planned to release four Great Horned Owls on the property as part of a partnership between the agency and Orfila 12 hours before the wildfires reached the vineyards.
Fortunately, she said, the winds were already too strong to release the owls and they were returned to a safe haven.
“We have about 110 home care sites we’ve been managing through the fires and most have had to be moved or relocated there,” she said. “We’ll probably be releasing them in the next week or two.”
The Associated Press reported that one-third of the state’s avocado crop had been lost to fire. Steve Taft, who grows avocados in San Diego County and packs them for other San Diego County growers, said it may be too early to quantify the damage.
But there’s no denying the importance of what happened in the last few days.
“It’s the biggest event in the history of the avocado business” in San Diego and Riverside counties, said Taft, president of Eco Farm Corp. of Temecula. The event surpassed the freezes, he said.
The winds that preceded the fire Oct. 20 “did a ton of damage,” he said, knocking immature fruit off the trees. The fruit can’t be salvaged.
Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said each farmer’s loss will differ depending on the size of their crop and what was lost. He pointed to avocado and citrus groves, dairy farms, egg and cattle ranches and vineyards as areas that could suffer from the fire’s devastating effects.
“If they lost their entire investment, they might not recover,” he said.
Replacement values don’t take into account things such as trees that have matured on the property over time, he added.
In 2003, agricultural fire damage in San Diego County accounted for approximately $28.4 million, according to county figures. The magnitude of destruction caused by the Cedar and Paradise fires was unmatched by any other fire in San Diego’s history.
Early estimates of the fire damage caused by this year’s fires topped $1 billion.
Brad Graves contributed to this story.