Lessons in Fire: Wildfire Exposes New Pathways for Recovery

with Jered Lawson, Pie Ranch

Like many farmers and ranchers, the folks at Pie Ranch figured a wildfire disaster of any magnitude was something that happened elsewhere and never to them, “Frankly, we were caught off guard,” says co-founder Jered Lawson. In 2020, the CZU Lightning Complex fire overtook the educational farm nestled in a pie-shaped slice of land off the coast of Pescadero, CA. “Just a few days after the lightning complex happened, we were told to evacuate and weren’t prepared at all,” Lawson reflects. In sharing their story, the hope is to show farmers that the time to prepare is now. But also, that wildfire is a dual force, bringing both unexpected losses and unexpected lessons. Lawson takes a deep breath and begins by describing the night of the wildfire:

Fire Story

It was a warm night and they’d left their windows open, he remembers. They’d been preparing to thresh wheat they’d harvested that week, which sat drying exposed in a harvest bin trailer. The first clap of thunder came and the storm was suddenly present, with drops of rain that sent Lawson running into the fields in his pajamas to cover the wheat. He stopped in his tracks: “There was this incredible lightning storm happening and I was blown away- it was exhilarating. It was this eerily beautiful, magical kind of experience,” he says, “Except it felt out of place. We had never had that kind of electric storm in our time here.” 

Overnight, that thunderstorm produced close to 11,000 bolts of dry lightning that started hundreds of fires throughout California. 

Pie Ranch seemed like it would be spared, despite seeing smoke beyond their hills. Even the local fire officials appeared unconcerned, said Lawson. “We had called CalFire, and it seemed fine…we relaxed. I think we even went surfing” he laughs. Wildfire, however, is predictably unpredictable.

The winds shifted and rose after a few days, and everything changed. Lawson recounts smoke growing thicker and suddenly a helicopter circled overhead telling them to evacuate immediately. 

They threw documents and clothes into bags, and closed up their newly built house, “And here we were, thinking we were finally secure in that house, suddenly super vulnerable.” Their community jumped into action. People and animals were moved off the property, but still, with the coastline and highway right there, they maintained that the wildfire wouldn’t come to them, “We always thought we were gonna be safe.” 

The next morning, they returned to their ranch to find that the majority of the infrastructure was still intact. Their four five thousand gallon water tanks had melted to the ground, however, so they were now without water storage and power. Relieved, they counted themselves lucky and returned to their evacuation spot, “not realizing that spot fires can continue to burn,” sighs Lawson. 

Spot Fires Smolder

That night, spot fires along their creek bed and ignited old palm trees and sparks blew to the buildings, consuming the 157-year-old historic farmhouse that was housing for apprentices and office space for the educational farm staff, “Not only was the house burned down, but the immense devastation of the hillsides and all of the plant and animal life that surround the 27 acres of the farm was just heartbreaking,” he shares. And while he says their farm derived many positive lessons from the wildfire, “It’s that level of devastation I think that we’re still kind of recovering from.”

Lawson and his neighbors were able to get permission from fire officials to return each day and try to mitigate additional damage from spot fires. They also started fire mitigation work he says they should have done 15 years prior.

Unexpected Losses and Risks

  • Farm stand Revenue: The main throughway, Highway 1, was shut down by the fire, which cut off all traffic to their famous farmstand, effectively halting all revenue from that source
  • Educational Revenue: As an educational farm, they lost core revenue in hosting educational groups which were suspended during recovery efforts
  • Water Storage and Distribution Systems: Major sources of water storage like their 5000-gallon plastic water tanks and irrigation systems all melted from the heat of the fire- so they didn’t have water or power
  • Loss of Key Structures: the main farmhouse, multiple animal shelters, and other infrastructure were a total loss and affected our ability to house staff and animals.
  • Spot fires smoldered for up to a year after the fire, which they had to continually monitor 

Powering Community

Disaster is a strange beast – while devastating, it often also has the result of enlivening social bonds. Lawson confirms this, reflecting almost fondly, “There was a period of just basic survival and crisis, but there was also so much community engagement that frankly, I found just so welcome,” smiles Lawson, “and was one of the silver linings in the tragedy of these catastrophic fires- focusing more on how we help each other get through this moment.” Some examples he shares are:

  • Without cell service or power, community members often found themselves all together on a neighboring knoll that was the only spot in miles that had a bit of reception, and which became a gathering place for folks to share needs and support each other
  • Neighbors helped each other get supplies or shared skills – one electrician helped them wire a diesel generator to power their well and offered the water for firefighters to use
  • Their neighbor shared their water tank on a mobile water pump attached to a truck that they used to put out additional spot fires as they flared up 
  • Impromptu happy hours brought levity to the catastrophe
  • Neighbors helping clear brush and protect structures on each other’s land

Lessons from Wildfire

In addition to deepening community, Lawson reflects that through their recovery process they have been able to unearth lessons beneath the ash:

 “Knowing how fire relates to particular plant communities has been one of the learning places for us. What type of flora are vectors of wildfire- Our Eucalyptus trees were originally planted as a windbreak, but over the past 100 years have expanded onto the farm and have turned into an environmental problem.”

“Some trees can withstand fire though, and it opens up their seeds and helps for reproduction. There was a thicket of seedlings that germinated post-fire in the ash and floor after the first rains! And there’s several native trees and shrubs and smaller annual plants that have evolved with fire and watching areas of the hillside kind of come back and with a flush of Ceanothus or other plants.”

We’re working with our neighbors and agencies to engage in cultural burns and prescribed burns to keep the fire loads down and to be able to coexist with fire. When fires do come through, I think it’ll present opportunities for partnership in all of that land stewardship work between native stewards and government and land trust and tribal bands.” 

“We often think of smudging as a way of cleansing the spirit. I think there’s a practical side to smoke and fire – it cleanses disease within the ecosystem. For us, there was also a cleansing of invasive plants that aren’t quite right for our ecosystem. The landscape as a whole was also cleared [which] created a better understanding of where we are situated and what’s around us.”

After spending weeks with fire [because it kept smoldering in the roots] we learned when it’s critical to respond and when it’s okay to let it do its thing. I could see how it could be a meaningful tool for a regular regimen to maintain the landscape in a way that contributes to its health rather than only seeing it as devastating and destructive.”

The Road to Recovery: Insurance and Aid Programs

In hopes of helping other farmers prepare Lawson stresses the practical side of recovery. Pie Ranch was one of the few farms Farmer Campus has interviewed that had insurance in place to cover wildfire, which he says he now realizes is so crucial for resiliency. 

Still, Lawson stresses the importance of insurance, saying “We are super grateful that we did that have in place. We’re moving forward rapidly with the rebuilding of structures that were lost because of those insurance monies being available. Having that in place enabled a greater resiliency.” He also realized, through rebuilding, that while constructing new infrastructure that is up to Wildfire Urban Interface codes feels so much more costly, he stresses how important it is, as their newer, up-to-code buildings withstood the fire whereas their historic buildings were lost. 

They’re also installing fireproof water storage systems on the property, “We’re moving forward as well as just increasing our abilities to respond with the resources at our fingertips so we can respond immediately when the fires hit.” 

Years out though, they’re still in negotiations with their insurance company to recoup the losses listed above, like lost revenue from the farm stand. Lawson realizes it’s become increasingly hard for farmers to access insurance, too, “a lot of insurance providers are making it difficult to get coverage, or people have just lost their coverage.” 

He notes that being a nonprofit likely also gave them greater capacity to access aid programs and foundations – “We were heartened by the outpouring of community donations that have helped in recovery and received critical resources from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation” he shares. Other federal aid programs that are also open to production farms-such as Emergency Conservation Program funding (ECP) through the Farm Service Agency (FSA) helped with the installation of lost fencing and reestablishment of water tanks.

Lawson also remarks, “I think the resources on recovery that you’re developing at Farmer campus are exactly the kind of thing that other farmers I think should avail themselves of and study to learn how to recover and adapt to wildfire as well.” 

 Advice to Other Farmers

“Don’t think it’s not going to happen to you or in your area. At this point, where there is vegetation that hasn’t been managed appropriately and hasn’t been hit by fire yet, I think it ultimately is just a matter of time. 

Learn about fire ecology, how to be prepared, and what you can do to steward the lands where you are with strong potential for wildfire. Welcome it where it’s possible, but also do the work that’s necessary to mitigate the catastrophic potential of fire.

I do wonder where we would have been if we had come to Farmer Campus and CAFF resources sooner, organizations that are working to support agricultural communities and rural communities, and Indigenous communities and being more fire conscious and fire smart.

Thank you so much for coming, collecting stories, and helping to weave them together in a way that can help others, and maybe bring more thoughtfulness as we go forward given the feels like the new normal is to be navigating catastrophic fires.