Farmers Cheetah Tchudi and Samantha Zangrilli run TurkeyTail Farm in Yankee Hill, California. This is a diversified farm with vegetables, mushrooms, flowers, livestock, and other value-added products. During the Camp Fire in Butte County, they were evacuated for 28 days and lost everything but their livestock to severe fire damage – including their home.
After 28 days of being evacuated Samantha and Cheetah were able to return to their farm. Once they got there, their recovery really began, having to figure out how to still produce and live on our land without having any basic resources, like electricity and water. Here are some of the considerations that they shared after reflecting on their recovery, as well as some tips on how to build resilience into your farm while rebuilding. If you haven’t already, read Part 1 of this blog post series.
In the wake of this disaster, we’ve joined a local group through the Butte County Resource Conservation District, which has started a coalition of landowners that want to do controlled burns on their property. So neighbors help neighbors get fire safe. We also hope to create a neighborhood coalition of people that are planning on staying to the next fire and being able to network. *Note: Farmer Campus does not condone staying and fighting. Please follow all evacuation orders.*
Before the fire, we did not have farm insurance. We found it very difficult to find somebody to insure us, so we kind of just left it at that because we had other things that we were concerned about which took priority. But since this experience, we have been very adamant about finding an insurer that would carry fire insurance for us. I actually had two agents working on our case and it took them about six months to finally find one person who would insure us! It definitely is difficult to find people who will insure you, but I encourage all farmers to research it and do as much as you can to be insured because it really will help you out when you have nothing and you need something to live off of.
Not sure where to start with insurance? Check out our three-part video series on Insurance for Small Farmers with wildfire in mind.
However, we were lucky enough at that time to have some insurance through Cheetah’s parents because they live on the same land as us. Because of them, we were able to have resources to rebuild because we had some money available. We definitely recommend getting insurance for your farm if you haven’t yet because it will pay out in the end.
Building in Redundancy
We’ve focused a lot, post-fire, on building redundancy to prepare for the next wildfire. In case something breaks, you’re able to get around the problem or fix it. We came back to the farm after the Camp Fire having to basically rebuild the farm from scratch, so we’re doing whatever we can to help prevent this type of thing from happening again and being more prepared for the fire season.
Water Storage: Part of that is having extensive water storage. One of the things we are doing in order to prepare not only for fire season but for our farm, in general, is to punch a second well because a big part of why we left and why we actually evacuated is because our well was dry and we were buying water, so we had no water really on site. Because of this wildfire event we’ve done a 180 and built-in redundancies to always have water on the property and now think about how we can always think about the second one. How can we always just have water for our livelihood?
Now we have two separate 5,000-gallon tanks, and we have a swimming pool that holds another 14,000 gallons of water. Dollar for dollar a swimming pool is about the most inexpensive form of water storage you can get – it cost us a little over $1,000. It’s outfitted with a sand pump and comes with a recirculating pump. So what we’ve done is plumbed it to have a hose bib so we can take one of our generators, plug it into a pump and be able to pump directly out of this pool for firefighting applications or for irrigating livestock. Firefighters will appreciate that they have any number of ways to get water out of tanks when defending your home.
We also separate the waterline on the tanks so that we can always keep one 5000-gallon tank completely full and the other one is our normal everyday operational tank. We’ve added an outlet for gravity feed in case the power is out and we don’t have the option to pump water. In addition, we have multiple small tanks that we can load onto our trailers or place out in the field to have a different distribution site for water. We have an additional 2500 gallons that we’ve placed at the absolute highest point on the property, so we can gravity feed from this during emergencies.
Power: We also have auxiliary tanks that can be moved around the property for firefighting applications to power our pumps during either power outage based on PG&E’s wind policy, or during the fire event during which your power inevitably will go out.
We have multiple generators that can power not only our main pumping station but also multiple mobile pumps that we can use for firefighting, animal irrigation, or sustaining our crops during the power outage. We do this via a transfer switch for our main pump house. Basically, this is an electrical device that will separate your power from the grid so that you’re not back-feeding into the grid with your generator. It allows us to run our own pumping station with just gasoline-powered energy. It’s a 120-volt pump so it can be run off of our smaller Honda generators. It’s just great to be flexible. Backup power is a central part of the farm for everyone now that PG&E have settled on their policy of turning off the electricity anytime the wind blows – we all need to be prepared at all times for the power to go out. In the case of a forest fire, I guarantee your power will go out immediately. And you need to be ready for that.
Reducing Fire Severity to Build Resilience
The next thing we wanted to address here is preparing and reducing fire severity [which is a quantitative measure of the effects of a fire on the environment, typically considering both the damage to vegetation and the impacts on the soil, different from fire intensity]. We have spent a lot of our time clearing brush in preparation for forest fires, and have been supported by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
Here’s an overview of the fuel load reduction practices we’ve implemented:
- The NRCS cost-share program has helped us absorb the expense of clearing brush and doing prescribed grazing.
- We move sheep, pigs, and ducks around the property to reduce our understory fuel and prevent ladder material, which is the brush that is going to allow the fire to go from the understory and trickle into the upper canopy where it becomes a high-intensity, high-heat fire. A lot of our brush clearing practices prior to this fire really paid off and it probably saved my parents’ house living in the foothills of California here in the Oak savanna.
- Brush clearing and forest maintenance are a big part of our job. Every winter we cut lower brush, reducing ladder material that would allow the fire to transition up into the canopy.
- We also create fire breaks throughout the forest so that we have regular spots in the forest where we can create a defensible line.
Recommended Tools for Fuel Load Reduction
What we are trying to do is create a forest that’s going to burn in a healthy way by lifting up those lower fuels. This way, the understory will burn and hopefully not get up in the upper canopy of our trees and kill them. For this we use:
- Chainsaws: they are a big part of our life, and we have a whole quiver. We like to buy steel because we like reliable motors. We’ve got a big one which is our major feller and brush clearing tool. I always recommend people run a little bit of Sea Foam through their chainsaws every now and again. Just a little bit in the tank really can help condition the tool and keep it running smoothly for you. Not only is this a brush-clearing tool, but it’s also a fire defense tool so they need to be ready to work when the time comes.
- Arborist saw: It’s handy for lighter jobs.
- Pole saw: handy to have just for general maintenance around the house.
- Fuel: keeping plenty of fuel on-site is important as well.
We also use these tools to keep our driveway accessible so that firemen can readily just drive right up and in giving your gate codes to those important facilities like firemen and the police department and even Wildlife, Fish and Game.
But a big part of reducing fire severity for us is just the same old regular jobs. We use the chainsaw to make lots of brush piles to control burn and then get our animals onto that acreage as much as possible because not only does it bring down the grass, but it also fertilizes the ground, and then when the rain hits after a big storm or a big fire, you’ll have amazing fertility. That’s definitely one of the things people were telling us when they came back to the land after the first rain was, “Wow it looks great out here!” We are so adamant about making sure our animals are well taken care of and are grazing all of our lands meticulously, which did really help when it came to the wildfire.
So those are our top adaptations that’ll be put to the test I’m sure – it seems we’re in a new era of fire here in California. Fire season doesn’t end, and the severity of the fires and the frequency of the fires are much higher. It’s just the reality of living in California now!
“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.”