Approximately 770,000 acres have burned recently in California as below-normal precipitation and hot, windy conditions have made the region -- which is already being affected by drought -- vulnerable to wildfires. Numerous wildfires, which started by lightning strike, are hardly contained, and above-normal potential for large fires will persist through September for the southern part of the state and October for the northern portion, the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection has warned.
The largest fire, the SCU Lightning Complex Fire, has burned nearly 230,000 acres as of Aug. 21 and is only 10% contained. The second-largest fire, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, has burned nearly 220,000 acres in Napa, Lake and Sonoma counties but is only 7% contained.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on Aug. 18. He tweeted Friday that there have been more than 12,000 lightning strikes recently and more than 560 fires.
In addition to urban residents having to evacuate their homes, vineyards, wineries and farms have burned or at risk of burning.
Dave Kranz, director of publications and media relations for the California Farm Bureau Federation, told Feedstuffs that the organization has received reports of agricultural damage, although assessing the full extent of the losses won’t be possible until the fires are controlled or extinguished.
“Several of the fires are burning in or near grape-growing areas. A number of farms and wineries have been evacuated,” he said. “I have seen reports of at least one winery in Solano County, east of San Francisco, that was extensively damaged and of others that were threatened but escaped the flames; we won’t know about most of the others until their owners are allowed to return.”
Kranz said grapevines are generally flame resistant, adding that some of vineyards have even served as fire breaks in a number of the recent wildfires. However, the grapes themselves can be subject to smoke damage, which may not become obvious until after harvest in the coming weeks, he said.
In addition to vineyards, the fires have also consumed rangeland and grazing ground in a number of areas.
“I have not heard of livestock being lost, though it may be a while before ranchers can return to burned areas to count their animals,” Kranz said. “At least half a dozen county fairgrounds in California have been mobilized as evacuation centers for livestock, according to the California Department of Food & Agriculture.”
Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable crops are ready for harvesting. In some cases, Kranz said air quality has deteriorated to the point that farmers have provided their employees with N95 respirators, as required under state regulations for people working outside during wildfires or other instances of poor air quality.
Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. natural resources, said the wildfires burning in several states right now are happening for a few key reasons.
“We’re finding these big fires in areas where you have a lot of that dense timber, a lot of that dense forage that -- either for reasons that grazing has been removed or that timber industries have been removed -- you’ve seen a massive buildup of these fuels, and really all it takes is one lightning strike,” Glover said.
This is never more true than when the U.S. Drought Monitor looks like it currently does, she said, adding, “I’m hearing from producers every day saying there is no water.”
The lesson that can be learned is that regulations and treatments need to fit the environment and the resource needs, she explained.
“If we make sure that we have the flexibility to react to a fire on the ground or to a flood on the ground or even drought conditions, we’re going to find that our managers are going to be much more successful. Ultimately, we will see better range conditions, better conditions for cattle and better conditions for our rural communities who face all of these impacts when catastrophic fire comes through,” Glover said.