Fires

As 'menacing' County Fire burns, Capay Valley farmers brace for smoke — and uncertainty

Northern California's County Fire sends huge plumes of smoke and ash into the air, as shown from an aerial view on Sunday, July 1, 2018. The fire continues to blaze through Yolo and Napa counties, at least 70,000 acres and 5 percent contained as of Tuesday morning, about 55 miles northwest of Sacramento between Highway 16 and Lake Berryessa.
Northern California's County Fire sends huge plumes of smoke and ash into the air, as shown from an aerial view on Sunday, July 1, 2018. The fire continues to blaze through Yolo and Napa counties, at least 70,000 acres and 5 percent contained as of Tuesday morning, about 55 miles northwest of Sacramento between Highway 16 and Lake Berryessa. Ken Cantrell Viewpoint Aerial Photography

Farmer Judith Redmond said the atmosphere was intense Monday afternoon in the Capay Valley, where her certified organic farm sits off Highway 16 in Yolo County.

There was ash falling from the sky, she told The Bee by phone, and everything outside her window looked orange. The Capay Valley is mostly rural, made up of farms, ranches and unincorporated communities. It is also currently being threatened by the largest fire burning in California.

As of Tuesday morning, Cal Fire reported the County Fire has burned 70,000 acres in Yolo and Napa counties since sparking Saturday in the unincorporated area of Guinda. Cal Fire reported the fire at 5 percent containment as of early Tuesday morning.

The Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District has also issued a Smoke Alert extending from Monday through Saturday for the area.

Redmond co-owns Full Belly Farm, which produces a variety vegetables, herbs, nuts, flowers and fruits year-round, and is located on County Road 43 in the north end of Guinda on the creek side of the Capay Valley.

As of Monday evening, her farm wasn't under evacuation orders like the west side, Redmond said.

Most of the farms in the area worked a full day on Monday, Redmond said, but by the end of the day the smoke had gotten pretty bad and there was some uncertainty of whether or not working conditions would be suitable on Tuesday.

She will be paying attention to the air quality, Redmond said.

Capay Organic farm, which spearheads the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Farm Box program Farm Fresh to You, was started by Thaddeus Barsotti's parents in 1976 and is located about a quarter mile west of Capay on Highway 16.

Barsotti said they are currently harvesting tomatoes, and at the moment his biggest concern is that the crops will smell like smoke or be affected by ash.

"That’s the thing I’m looking out for," said Barsotti, adding that he hasn't seen ash on the crops as of Monday but is "definitely monitoring it."

Like Full Belly Farm, the smoke in the air could also prove problematic for Capay Organic farming operations.

It was a normal workday on Monday, said Barsotti. The winds had been coming from the north and had cleared most of the smoke overnight.

However, by 3 p.m. the winds had shifted and were coming from the south, bringing the smoke with it and visibility down to less than a mile by the evening, Barsotti said.

If the smoke makes working conditions uncomfortable they will have to stop, Barsotti said, adding that they are in a tough situation because it is a critical time for seasonal farming.

"We have crops that need to be picked," Barsotti said, adding that if the window is missed, the crops will be too ripe and can’t be shipped because they won’t survive the journey.

Right now, they are focusing on having enough people on hand to get the job done and get out of there, Barsotti said.

The fire isn't having as much of an impact on certain crops because they won't be harvested until later.

Tom Frederick, co-owner of Capay Valley Vineyard in Brooks, said the grapes are little hard berries right now that haven't fully developed, and their skins are very tough, which is helpful given the circumstances.

"This is the early season," Frederick said. "We are in good shape."

That's why the fires in Sonoma last October were so devastating for growers, Frederick said, because they were trying to pick the grapes then. He called it a worst-case scenario.

Business in the tasting room, however, was a bit subdued over the weekend, Frederick said.

The winery is located on Highway 16, which is the only major road in and out of the area, Frederick said, and it sustained heavy traffic congestion due to the firefighting efforts.

But the diehards still made it out, Frederick said.

The most difficult thing for farmers in the Capay Valley affected by the fires is having to leave behind their animals if they are ordered to evacuate, Redmond said, noting that Full Belly Farm has quite a few on its property as well.

"There is no way farmers can take all of their animals,” Redmond said, adding that these are small farms and they don't have the equipment needed for that kind of large-scale evacuation.

All the farmers can do, Redmond said, is just try to move their animals to the safest place as they possibly can before they have to leave.

Because it is an irrigated farm next to the creek, not as close to the hillside as other areas and the fire would have to jump the road, Redmond said it seemed unlikely Full Belly Farm would be threatened.

"I think that it’s just very menacing," Redmond said of the fire, adding that they can see it very clearly from their location.

Here are dramatic images of how the smoke from the 44,500-acre County Fire is filling the air around Lake Berryessa and Yolo County.

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