Photo by David McNew via Getty Images

The Thomas fire is barreling through US’ largest avocado producing region, leaving destruction in its wake

Tim Nelson
December 14, 2017

The full extent of the devastation caused by the wildfires tearing through Southern California is still unknown. But with the roaring blaze sweeping westward across Ventura County into Santa Barbara County, some of America’s biggest avocado farms are now at risk of going up in flames. 

Technically separate from other wildfires closer to Los Angeles proper, the Thomas Fire originated closer to Ventura, and has pushed westward due to some especially severe Santa Ana winds gusting up to 70 miles per hour. Amid dry conditions, Thomas has grown to the fourth-largest wildfire in California’s history, burning through 242,000+ acres as of Thursday morning.

And avocado orchards have been swept up in its destruction. Their hillside locations and dessicated leaves make avocado orchards particularly suspect to Thomas’ terror as it burns through an area that’s grown to 60 miles long and 40 miles wide. The timing of the destruction is also especially tragic given that some farms were days away from harvesting their annual crop. Even those who plucked avocados from their trees before the storm passed through fear the scorching of earth on their property, not to mention the possibility of farmhands losing their homes to the fire. 

Ventura County’s low-lying lemon groves have evaded the worst of the fires, but unseasonably strong winds have shaken lemons off their branches and sent them tumbling to the ground, which means they now cannot legally be sold. It will take days, weeks or longer to assess the loss,” said  Ventura County Farm Bureau CEO John Krist. “What we know is, there’s a lot of fruit on the ground.”

Officials say Thomas is only 30% contained, but many of Ventura county’s farm workers (overwhelmingly composed of immigrants) have been instrumental in combating the flames. Relying on little more than hoses, back-mounted water tanks, and whatever sand they could  toss at approaching fires, many have worked to protect the crops they tend until the moment they’re forced to evacuate. “The fire was all around us, and I felt despair and sadness for my boss and the land as I saw it approaching,” said one Mexican farm worker who spoke to the Seattle Times.

Though it could take a while for California’s $45 billion agricultural sector to recover, the glut of avocados the US imports from Mexico means that this loss of domestic supply shouldn’t be enough to drive prices up even further.  Even still, with some family farmers like Ellen Brokaw estimating the loss of up to 80% of a 200-acre crop, the impact on southern California’s farming community is hard to overstate. 

With earlier wildfires in California wine country and widespread damage to Floridian citrus groves during Hurricane Irma, 2017 has surely been a year where the impact of natural disasters (likely exacerbated by climate change) on agricultural production has become impossible to ignore. Even once Thomas is little more than fading embers, it’s only a matter of when—not if— the flames rise up again. 

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