As the smoke clears

Features - Cover Story

The Thomas Fire wreaked havoc on two counties in California, and local businesses are trying to determine what comes next.

February 5, 2018
Chris Manning
Photo: iStock

Lauris Rose and her family moved to California in 1955, when she was five years old. While she has seen and lived through fires in the years since, Rose, who owns Cal-Orchid with her husband James, says she has never experienced anything quite like the Thomas Fire.

“This was a once-in-a-generation disaster,” she says.

The Thomas Fire started on Dec. 4, 2017 to the north of Santa Paula, California, and spread to both Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. By Dec. 23, the fire had burned 273,400 acres — making it the largest wildfire in the state’s history, according to the Los Angeles Times. Fueled by dry conditions and high winds, the Thomas Fire is estimated to have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. In Ventura County alone, experts estimate that the agriculture industry has suffered more than $170 million in damages, according to the Ventura County Star.

Local officials say the fire has been 100 percent contained since Jan. 12. Over the weeks that the fire raged, more than 100,000 residents were forced to evacuate, and more than 8,000 firefighters were called in to fight the blaze. Extreme rainfall that fell after the fire was contained caused mudslides in Montecito, California, located in Santa Barbara County, that have caused more than 20 deaths. The National Weather Service says this type of precipitation only occurs in the area once every 200 years.

Rose, whose business is loacated in the city of Santa Barbara, says they were fortunate enough to not have their home or greenhouses destroyed or damaged by the fire. Some of their orchid buds, however, were coated in the ash that came through the vents on top of the greenhouse. Darkened, smoky skies have also made lighting the crops an issue for Cal-Orchid as the business doesn’t use any supplemental lighting, Rose says.

There’s also the reality of living in an area that went through a disaster at the scale of the Thomas Fire. Even after the fire, Rose and others in the area are waiting, and hoping, for life to get back to normal. But the fire lingers, even after it no longer burns.

Unheard of challenges

Cal-Orchid has been in business for more than 30 years, operating as a wholesale seller with some on-site sales to local residents and vacationers getting some rest and relaxation in Santa Barbara. The property has also been home to the American Buddhist Meditation Temple since 2001. Currently, several monks from Thailand live on the property.

When the Thomas Fire hit, Rose said they and other Santa Barbara residents were not issued a mandatory evacuation order and chose to stay through the fire. They were, though, advised by the government to wear protective masks to prevent smoke inhalation.

When the Roses were able to check their greenhouse, they found no damage to the facility itself and the monks were unharmed. However, ash had fallen on their greenhouse roofs, flowed through the vents and onto plant material.

There have been other issues as well. Because of the drought affecting California, Rose says they have been instructed to be “water wise,” and currently only have access to city water. Parts of the greenhouse are still caked in ash, and Rose is concerned about using city water she considers “dirty” to clean it because of the risk of contaminating the growing space. Until a better solution presents itself, a necessary deep clean is on hold.

Additionally, Rose says the smoke-smudged skies make it impossible to know on a day-to-day basis if the plants in their greenhouses or outside growing space are getting the proper sunlight.

“There’s absolutely nothing we could have done to prepare for this,” she says.

But Rose says they were lucky because the orchids in the greenhouse were not yet at full bloom and were roughly 20 percent through the growing process. Had the fire occurred during peak season, and had the greenhouse been filled to its edges with plants, Rose isn’t sure Cal-Orchid would have been able to recover from the financial blow the business would have been dealt.

“It would have been unconsciously devastating,” she says.

The other current challenge for Cal-Orchid is how to keep business steady with the ongoing recovery efforts surrounding them. According to Rose, safety concerns about Santa Barbara County — parts of which were under mandatory evacuation during the height of the fire’s strength — have stopped potential customers from driving in from Los Angeles for a weekend away. Another obstacle was the closure of Highway 101, which was shut down Jan. 12 due to the mudslides. The route, which the California Department of Transportation says carries at least 100,000 vehicles each day, is key to transportation throughout California’s central coastal region; the region has essentially been in limbo since Dec. 4.

“This is just a frightfully long time to deal with a disaster without end,” Rose says.

273,400 acres were burned during the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.
Photo: Adobestock

Evaluating the damage

Currently, Rose says she and her husband are currently working to fix what is right in front of them instead of looking too far into the future. It doesn’t help either that, while the fire fizzled out after a long life, she can still smell it.

“All of Santa Barbara smells like a barbeque pit someone poured water on,” Rose says. “It’s always in your face.”

David Anderson is a professor and extension economist at Texas A&M University, and has spent a large portion of his career researching how natural disasters like fires, hurricanes and tornadoes affect different industries. He says that while each situation is different and has its own unique factors to consider, there is one commonality for every situation.

“It’s often best to wait until after the storm has passed [to do a full evaluation],” Anderson says. “But people want to know that dollar value and know it as soon as possible.”

When he is evaluating different disasters, Anderson says determining the amount of damage caused is often a product of timing. For instance, if a crop report detailing how much of each individual crop was grown during a specific time frame was recently completed, analysts can accurately determine what may have been lost.

Anderson says the United States Department of Agriculture will likely do an official report on the impact caused by the fire, but it may not be for several months because of the timing of the completion of the USDA greenhouse and nursery crop surveys across the state. Unlike some food crops and livestock, nursery and greenhouse production is often calculated annually instead of monthly.

According to the USDA’s most recent agricultural census in 2012, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties are two of the largest producers of nursery, greenhouse and floriculture crops in the country, both placing in the top 10. Ventura County is the fourth-largest producer, while Santa Barbara County is eighth.

“Each crop is reported in a different month because of the different growing season,” he says. “And some just aren’t as evaluated as often.” Anderson adds that in some cases, state organizations, or industry organizations that track price data, might be able to provide more accurate disaster data faster.

For the greenhouse industry, he says one statistic to evaluate is the number of greenhouses lost in the fire.

“It is very common for the value of the infrastructure to be much larger than the value of the crops lost,” Anderson says. “Those are long-term investments and very expensive relative to the crops grown each season.”

The Thomas Fire started on Dec. 4, 2017 and raged for weeks before being fully contained.
Photo: Adobestock

An uncertain future

Across the two counties affected by the fire, different growers have different stories to tell. June VanWingerden from Ocean Breeze Farms, which grows gerberas, daises and other flowers, says two of Ocean Breeze’s nurseries are in what was the mandatory evacuation zone and were cut off from the business for a few days. Ultimately, the California Cut Flower Commission — where VanWingerden serves as a commissioner representing her area — worked with the Santa Barbara Ag Commissioner and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to work out specific days and times for Ocean Breeze to briefly access the business. VanWingerden says Ocean Breeze suffered a $50,000 loss because product couldn’t be shipped out in time. And like Rose, VanWingerden says her ash-covered greenhouses blocked the sunlight from reaching the plants for several days, resulting in smaller than normal gerberas.

“Luckily, we are past that,” VanWingerden says. “It has been a challenge.”

Others — like Westerlay Orchids in Carpinteria, California, which donated the $11,000 it made in sales from Dec. 21-23 to a local food bank — have used their businesses to help to those in need. Toine Overgaag, owner of Westerlay Orchids, also continued to pay employees when the business closed due to a mandatory evacuation order. Others were the benefactors of good luck. Joe Ortiz, owner of wholesale flower grower Joseph & Sons, says winds pushed the fires away from his greenhouses, sparing his business and his employees from any serious repercussions.

“We were very, very fortunate,” Ortiz wrote in an email.

But for everyone involved, it is unclear exactly what comes next. Many are still primarily focused on getting their greenhouses clean and ready for growing again. In Ocean Breeze’s case, VanWindergen says that the dried-out hills located behind one of their facilities crumbled after the fire was contained, allowing mud from a nearby creek towards the nursery area. Fortunately, it stopped in the driveway before it could damage any plants.

As for Cal-Orchid, Rose says she expects business to pick up again once Santa Barbara gets back to a state resembling normal. Beyond getting the ash out of the greenhouse and getting back to business as usual, her biggest concern is the Santa Barbara International Orchid Show. Rose says the show typically draws in visitors from across the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia, but she is concerned that people who may typically attend will be wary of making the trip in the aftermath of the fire. Many attendees, she says, use the trip to Southern California to take a vacation in the Santa Barbara area — something that may not be as appealing when acres of land have been burnt and a typically scenic pocket of California doesn’t yet have the same beauty as before.

“I’m hopeful because the highway is open now and people can easily get to L.A.,” she says. “But we’ll see.”

As she looks to the months ahead, and the work that is still to be done, Rose is only sure of one thing.

“It will never look exactly as we knew it,” she says.