Wildfire Recovery on the Agenda Nov. 16

California agriculture department will host town hall meeting in Escondido

by Jane Firstenfeld
Wildfire Recovery on the Agenda Nov. 16
Before: A Ramona Valley vineyard at harvest 2006.
San Diego County, Calif. -- Cleanup continues, and rebuilding has yet to begin after October wildfires torched 442,639 acres in Southern California. Many of the areas blackened by eight separate blazes were in agricultural zones: Winegrape vineyards as well as citrus and avocado crops were damaged or destroyed. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) has scheduled a "town hall meeting" this Friday to assist farmers who sustained losses in the fires. Representatives from state and federal agencies are expected to attend, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Small Business Administration, California Small Business Disaster Assistance Loan Guarantee Program, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services and the seven affected counties: San Diego, Riverside, Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and Ventura.

"State and federal resources are available to help farm and ranch operations," according to USDA Farm Service Agency state director John Smythe. Josh Eddy, CDFA public information officer, told Wines & Vines that the agency expects upwards of 50 victims to attend the meeting, to be held at the San Diego County Farm Bureau, 1670 E. Valley Pkwy., in Escondido at 2 p.m. on Nov. 16.

"This town hall meeting will provide important information to farmers and ranchers on state and federal disaster programs that are available to assist in rebuilding efforts," CDFA Secretary A.G. Kawamura said in a statement. The meeting has been designed as a one-stop opportunity to collect information and ask questions about the various forms of disaster assistance. CDFA has partnered with the USDA farm services agency to provide low-cost loans to replace crops and equipment and rebuild structures.

The USDA's Smythe said today that damage figures are still rough, but that reports estimate more than $42 million in damage to agricultural crops in San Diego County alone. "San Diego County had by far the most agricultural losses," he said, "Just short of 10,000 acres." That included 1,700 acres of avocado orchards. "We're dealing with high value crops," he noted.

Smythe explained that in incidences like this, following a presidential disaster declaration, low-cost interest loans are automatically available to affected farmers and ranchers, but only those who cannot obtain financing through normal commercial channels. "Fortunately or unfortunately, in this case most are able to get financing elsewhere. This is fairly typical of California," he said.

Among other types of available assistance to be discussed at the meeting are an emergency conservation program to help with debris removal, and cost-share programs to replace or repair irrigation systems.

Smythe said he had heard very little about damage to winegrape vineyards. However, Alex McGeary, owner of Shadow Mountain Vineyards & Winery and president of the San Diego County Vintners Association (SDCVA), said the fires' impact on inland areas of sprawling San Diego County was universal. On Tuesday, he had presided over a general meeting of the SDCVA in hard-hit Ramona, northeast of the city.

Wildfire Recovery on the Agenda Nov. 16
            Ramona Valley AVA
"Everyone was impacted," he said. "Roads were closed, communications systems were burned up. Around Ramona, they are still coming back online. That will be the biggest long-term infrastructure problem," he predicted. "I'm still having problems getting in touch with some of the vineyards."

Driving to Ramona yesterday, "We noticed some buildings adjacent to vineyards were torched. I still don't know how many vineyard acres were burned." At the Samuel Givens Winery, near Jamul in the southeast section of the county, the owners' home, atop the winery, was destroyed, McGeary reported. (For more information on vineyards damaged by the wildfires, see "Wildfires Threaten San Diego Wineries.")

San Diego County is currently home to 41 wineries, at least five in the Ramona area. When the fires ignited, "Fortunately, most of the harvest was over," McGeary said. Makeshift communications and getting back into the swing of normal life may have temporarily quelled some reports of damage, he surmised, with the wisdom of experience. "In 1995, my winery was destroyed in a fire," he said. "It took me about eight months just to focus, to decide if I even wanted to keep on going here."

For those getting ready to tally their losses and focus on the future, the CDFA's town hall meeting may help them start to organize their recovery. Another useful resource is San Diego County's Department of Planning and Land Use, which has information and reporting forms online at sd.county.ca.gov/dplu.
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