One Year Later: Agriculture’s Road to Recovery after Devastating 2017 Wildfires
It’s been one year since the 2017 North Bay fires; I’m standing in front of a rectangular patch of charred black earth, three miles from the nearest paved road in the Atlas region of Napa County. Various household items are scattered across the ground; a kitchen oven stands perfectly intact, albeit dirty from ash and dust. I’m looking at what’s left of Cathy Hammond’s homestead cabin, pictured at the top of this article. The cabin was built by her husband’s great-grandfather, who settled on the land in 1882. It sat on a 240-acre plot of land, where Hammond lives and farms olives and figs. At an elevation of 2,000 feet, several of the olive trees are the original Missions that John W. Hammond planted in the late 19th century.
On that fateful October night that the cabin was destroyed, Hammond was several miles away helping her neighbors evacuate their animals. She and her husband also used their water truck and bulldozer to help fight the fires. When they returned to the ranch, the cabin was gone. “It took one ember,” Hammond said. The homestead cabin was less than 1,000 feet from the main house, which survived, and groves of olive trees which suffered but remained standing.
The Hammonds did not evacuate. Instead, the dirt road that ran through their property became an escape route for those who lived further south, where the fires were quickly spreading. Hammond led evacuees – many of whom were her neighbors – through the winding paths on her property, through ruts, forests, and river beds, until they reached safety near Lake Hennessy. “That’s one of the reasons why we stayed,” Hammond says. “We know these people. We know their animals.”The dirt roads winding through the Hammonds' property served as a critical escape route during the fires.
The main house quickly became a hub for firefighters, law enforcement, and fire support teams, as the home was the only residence in miles with fully functioning satellite, electricity, and WiFi. It was also less than a mile from the Atlas fire that was racing through the property.
“We were all on edge because we weren’t sure if it would end here or blow past. The thing that saved us was the wind change,” Hammond remembers.
The Atlas fire was extinguished on the Hammond’s property, within sight of the main house.
The North Bay Wildfires of October 2017 were among the most detrimental wildfires in California history, laying waste to over 200,000 acres of land and claiming the lives of at least 44 people in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Solano, and Mendocino counties. In Atlas alone, over 50,000 acres burned and 120 structures were destroyed. Six of Hammond’s neighbors passed.Map of the impact zones of the 2017 North Bay wildfires. Source: CalFire
To get a better idea of how the fires affected the region and its agricultural community I talked with Evan Wiig, who is the Director of Membership and Communications for the nonprofit Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF)/Farmers Guild (FG). “We had a perfect storm of ecological circumstances,” Wiig explains. A wet winter the previous year led to a huge growth in the understory of forests and rural land, “which is just perfect for a fire,” says Wiig.
Napa and Sonoma’s vineyards were mostly untouched by the fires. A survey conducted by the Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute shows that 99.5% of grapes were successfully harvested, and most vineyards had harvested their grapes prior to the start of the fires. The Institute also reports that 93% of wineries were unaffected. In fact, in many cases, the vineyards were instrumental in acting as firebreaks.
Smaller vegetable and livestock farmers did not fare as well. As the smoke cleared and the ash settled, stories of damaged and destroyed farmland began to emerge. Many farms lost irrigation systems, livestock, and supporting farm structures, such as barns and storage facilities. In Atlas, most of the damage on Hammond’s farm was done to the main water tank and some of her family’s older olive trees. She sells her olive oil and figs at the Martinez Farmers’ Market. However, in the months following the fires, Hammond’s participation was sporadic. Olive yield was much lighter than usual after October; the burned trees would take a while to bounce back from the stress of the fires, Hammond tells me during my visit.
Hammond’s trees were mostly spared from the flames because the fire fighters had doused the trees with a neon pink flame retardant. But sending the olives to pressing facilities was a different story. Wary of the potential chemical contamination from the flame retardants, local pressers turned away the olive harvest. For those farmers who held an organic certification, applying flame retardants to save their crops could cost them their credentials for a full three years. “No one wanted to crush the olives because they didn’t want to wash them in their machines. So we had to drop the fruit, lick our wounds, and move on,” says Hammond. “But if it weren’t for the retardant, I wouldn’t have any trees.”Pink flame retardant covers a pickup truck on the Hammonds' property. Source: Cathy Hammond
Indeed, the economic hit was resounding. Local farmers’ markets shut down in the weeks following the fires, inhibiting small farmers’ ability to sell their produce. And with much of their local clientele displaced, the farmers were hard-pressed to find customers. In Sonoma County alone, the housing crisis was exacerbated when 5% of homes were burned. Before the fires, the vacancy rate was only 1%, as there were few vacant homes available. The fires also magnified the existing labor shortages in the agricultural sector, as people struggled to meet their basic human needs.
Some farmers had crop insurance, but most didn’t. Crop insurance is a safety net administered by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, meant to reimburse farmers when they’ve had poor yields, lost crops to natural disasters, or lost revenue from fluctuating commodity prices. Originally conceptualized to help farmers recover from the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, the resulting crop insurance policies now tend to support very large, monocultural commodity crops. This is because the insurance disbursements cover individual crops, rather than whole farms.
For a 10000-acre corn farm, the insurance policies can offer worthwhile compensations. But small farmers with highly diversified operations have a harder time placing a value on the numerous crops they produce and qualifying for most crop insurance policies. As a result, small, diversified farms have historically missed out on the benefits of crop insurance. In 2016, 89.9% of American farms were considered small family farms, but only 17% of crop insurance indemnities went to these farmers.
However, in the last four years, a Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) crop insurance policy has gained momentum as a support for small, diversified farms. WFRP insurance plans are applicable for any farm, including specialty and organic crops, and farms which opt to sell their produce locally. The policy covers the entire farm, rather than one commodity crop. While it is available in all counties in the country, many farmers are unaware of the new program, including those affected by the North Bay fires. To date, only 2,500 farms across the country – representing less than 2% of all crop insurance liabilities – are enrolled in the WFRP insurance policies.Fires race through Atlas, just a stone's throw from the Hammonds' main house. Source: Cathy Hammond
In fact, lack of awareness was a major setback in the recovery process. “What could have been done better is just making sure that people are aware of the services for disasters, because when the fires hit, it was mass confusion,” says Wiig. “There were resources out there, there were people doing their jobs, but most people didn’t know.”
For the many farmers who did not have insurance, there was support from nonprofit groups and disaster assistance from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Perhaps the most heartening support came from the community itself. “There was such an overwhelming sense of support and this can-do attitude and just everybody who could was jumping to action,” says Wiig. “Whether it was raising funds or volunteering at evacuation centers, or providing space to support evacuees or animals.” The Atlas fire drew Hammond and her neighbors closer together, despite the thousands of acres that separate them. In recovering from the fire, her community put together an informal evacuation plan to ensure preparedness for future emergencies.
Groups such as the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and CAFF/FG helped to provide feed and supplies to livestock, as well as transporting livestock to safe locations. Numerous fairgrounds generously opened their doors as temporary shelters for humans and livestock alike. Many local farmers who were not affected by the fires sent produce to food kitchens and other organizations that used this food to create healthy, tasty meals. Wiig worked with one such organization, F.E.E.D. Sonoma, which coordinated donations and purchases from local California farms and ranches, connecting them with chefs and volunteers who in turn created over 80,000 meals for displaced families.
Of course, the story would be incomplete without mention of Napa and Sonoma’s agricultural backbone: the undocumented farmworkers. “That’s a big side of the agricultural community that are the most at risk,” Wiig explains. In California, more than half of farmworkers are undocumented. Many of these workers did not seek assistance following the North Bay fires. “They either weren’t eligible for federal assistance, or even for the local programs that they were eligible for, they had fear of getting deported.”
Within 72 hours of the start of the fires, local community groups banded together to create UndocuFund, an organization that provides long term help to undocumented immigrants. UndocuFund was developed by leaders of the North Bay Organizing Project, Graton Day Labor Center, and North Bay Jobs with Justice, with Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees as the fiscal agent.
Immediately after the fires, UndocuFund connected with undocumented immigrants who had trouble getting access to unemployment compensation and funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The organization has become more than a relief fund for immediate needs, working to provide long-lasting solutions on a needs-based system. UndocuFund addresses families’ needs by providing direct funding and acting as a facilitator, helping to coordinate other support systems that are similarly aligned in their efforts to aid undocumented immigrants. “Say, if you have a hernia; you don’t necessarily need to get money from UndocuFund to pay for that, we’ll connect you to Operation Access,” says lead organizer at North Bay Jobs with Justice, Mara Ventura, in an interview with Eater. Operation Access is a local organization which provides medical care for undocumented patients. “Let’s look at the next real needs on your list,” says Ventura. “So people aren’t choosing between food and surgeries and paying their rent. We want to make sure we are pulling resources together as a hub for people to actually get long-term support.”
The fires are gone, the camera crews have dissipated, and tourists have returned full force, but local communities continue recovering from the physical and emotional traumas of October 2017. “At night, we set our alarms every hour or two hours to check on where the fire was,” Hammond recalls. “After it was all out and done, you felt like your body was still waking up every two hours looking for the fire, to see if it was coming over the mountain. But every day gets better.” The experience brought communities closer, and inspired action for better emergency preparedness. Some organizations, like the CAFF/FG, are working on comprehensive plans and resource lists for natural disasters, as well as better communication and connection within the farming community. In looking forward, Wiig stresses the need for better land management, encouraging farmers to implement planned grazing and controlled fires. At the same time, California lawmakers and government officials are pushing for increased funding and infrastructure for fire departments, forest management, and fire prevention, as well as better implementation of countywide emergency warning systems.
For now, Hammond is taking one day at a time and counting her blessings: “Life is too short. People say that all the time, but when you actually experience something like that you realize it’s true!”