By now you may have heard that California’s newest wildlife is right here in Winters. It started yesterday afternoon just few miles west of Terra Firma, and overnight has spun up to well over 1000 acres.
At the current time, the “Cold Fire” poses little risk to any farms, including our own, and few homes. Winds have been light, and from the south, so they have encouraged the fire to move north — away from inhabited areas. Should the wind shift dramatically, which is not expected, there is a good chance it would push the fire back the direction it came: into the area it has already burned.
That said, it is entirely possible the fire will remain out of control as it moves north along the Coast Range above the valley floor. The terrain there is steep and rugged, there are few roads to access it, and it hasn’t burned in over twenty years.
This will be the third year in a row that we’ve had a big fire in mid-summer in this area. But our actual farm fields are unlikely to ever suffer loses. My friends who are firefighters literally tell people to “go stand in one of Terra Firma’s fields” if a fire gets really bad. They are referring to the fact that since we irrigate all of our crops, our fields are the greenest spot around. Wheat and feed corn fields, in contrast, are often bone-dry when they are harvested this time of year. And god forbid a fire gets near a safflower field, with its high oil content. Just one spark and a whole field can go up in smoke.
The topography of our farm makes lowers our risk even further. Fires tend to start in the hilly areas around us that are not cultivated or irrigated, and flames tend to move uphill. Most farmland in this area — and most of our fields — are in the flatlands down below, separated from the hills by roads, irrigation canals, or the creek.
The primary exception are our citrus orchards, which are situated in the low hills just above the valley floor and back up against the grazing lands that are the most likely to burn. During last year’s fire, the folks who live in that area were evacuated but the fire never reached the orchards. Even though the orchards themselves are lush and green, they are surrounded by mostly dry vegetation and highly flammable oak forest.
What we learned last year that the biggest risk to our farm from fires in the area is not the flames, but the smoke and ash. The Wragg Fire in 2015 produced so much smoke that it literally blocked the sun for over a week. It got dark every day at 6 p.m. and stayed dark in the morning until almost 8, essentially turning August into October. Many of our summer crops, which are incredibly sensitive to the length of the day, were tricked into believing that fall had arrived. Tomatoes and melons stopped producing fruit, and the fruit on them stopped ripening. In essence, the fire aborted our summer harvest season and hastened the arrival of fall.
So far this year’s fire is not causing the same problem. The winds are blowing both the fire and the majority of smoke away from the farm, although the air is still hazy with smoke.
As far as the area that is burning…it needs to burn. Fire is part of California’s natural ecology, and the Coast Range north of us is still mostly relatively undisturbed wild land that will benefit overall from it. I’m guessing that fire agencies will focus on making sure the fire stays away from settled areas but otherwise let it do its thing. It would nice if the smoke keeps blowing away from us, because this fire has 30 miles worth of fuel in its path, and it could burn for weeks.