Being impacted by wildfire is terrifying, potentially deadly, and can be extremely costly. But for farmers and ranchers, there are so many layers to the type of losses they face from not just the wildfire, but the evacuations and power shut-offs that can make recovery almost impossible. It’s important to note what these losses are to properly prepare financially through insurance and to set yourself up for aid in the event of disaster. In this two part photo blog series, we talked with farm manager David Cooper to hear his wildfire story and get a glimpse into the realities of farming with wildfire and how to recover.
Part I: Understanding the True Costs of Wildfire
Though David Cooper was an experienced Farm Manager, nothing prepared him for the impacts on their farm from the Nun’s wildfire in 2017. At two in the morning on October 8th, the wildfire crested the hills five miles outside Glen Ellen, CA. The wildfire burned for 22 days, and was so destructive it resulted in three deaths and 56,500 acres burned and 1355 structures destroyed. In its path was Oak Hill Farm, where Cooper was managing 20 acres of mixed vegetables, flowers and fruit on a larger 700 acre property. “I’m sharing my experience today in the hopes that should you be faced with a similar situation,” reflects Cooper, “you’ll have hopefully learned some lessons that we would have certainly benefited from knowing ahead of time.” He joined Farmer Campus to share his experience, recount the nuanced losses that farmers can face (and prepare for) from wildfire, and share tips and resources for financial preparation and recovery when a disaster strikes. What follows is a photo blog and excerpt from his original talks, which you can see here: Part 1 and Part 2.
To situate you in place, here are some photos from Oak Hill Farm. In this first photo, the fire crests the hills outside the farm, which it will soon overtake. In an effort to save some of their more expensive equipment, here you can also see a few of their tractors, trucks and other heavy machinery that they had moved out of their storage barns as far away from other flammable infrastructure into these irrigated fields.
Taking an aerial view, this photo above shows how the fire moved through different fields, following fuel loads and unintentional fire breaks – it was a hot, dry October, and their perennial fields were unirrigated. Those fields burned, but you can also see their irrigated fields that they were readying for cover crop, “You can see that the irrigated fields essentially served as firebreaks, but everything that was unirrigated and dry, burned,” David reflects, “and it’s also interesting to note here, you can see seasonal creeks that run through and the fire really followed these creeks, because it was following the fuel load of blackberry shrubs and buckeye trees.”
In these two photos, you can see what remained of their old farmhouse, which had been there since the late 1800s (and had even already been through fire before!). “This was all dry grass around it – but this time the farmhouse didn’t make it through.” On the side of the house you can see the remainder of their workshop, “We had some tractors parked in there, we had other equipment, we had wood chippers,” reflects Cooper, “basically the fire destroyed everything in there.”
As Cooper mentioned, the fire followed the creeks due to the build up of fuel load on the banks. Unfortunately, farms often also put permanent irrigation lines along their creek banks- which for Oak Hill meant that they lost the majority of their irrigation system infrastructure as well as the lines burned and melted, “So, maybe not the best place to put irrigation! Or if you do, find a way to to try to protect it as well,” Cooper suggests. Amazingly, irrigated crops like these brassicas served as fire breaks to other parts of the land.
Counting the Losses: Tallying the True Costs of Wildfire for Farmers
David Cooper tallies up some of Oak Hill Farm’s losses to paint a holistic picture of what farmers can face after disaster.
How did Oak Hill Farm Recover?
“This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award Numbers 2018-70027-28587, RMA21CPT0011602, Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program G226-22-W8617 and AFRI EWD Predoctoral Award #2022-67011-36637. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, any reference to specific brands or types of products or services does not constitute or imply an endorsement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for those products or services.”