Update from the Ojai Pixie Growers Association
Ojai Valley is recovering from Thomas fire
The Thomas Fire - now the largest wildfire in the history of our state - started Dec 4 in a canyon just east of our precious valley.
Responding to pre-fire alerts about a predicted extreme dry period with a high winds, Ojai Pixie growers irrigated beforehand, knowing that wind events pull precious moisture from tree
leaves and have the potential to damage the ripening crop.
Midday on December 4th the swift and erratic Santa Ana winds arrived. The evening brought a glow from the Santa Paula area - sirens and headlights in the night - and we knew that things did not bode well.
People in the Upper Ojai valley went into fight or flight mode - preparing to hose down embers and moving flammables away from properties and homes. Others packed and left as best they could. The fire jumped all around the upper Ojai that night, taking homes and belongings with it.
News was hard to come by as power and radio antennae went down.
The fire raced from above Santa Paula along the Sulphur Mountain ridgeline that forms the southern rim of the Ojai Valley - all the way to west
Ventura that night. The flames moved down the slope and took hundreds of homes in the City of Ventura in a matter of hours.
We watched the glow move west as fire flanked the Ojai Valley's southern side. Growers in Ojai's east end watched the eastern fire front and wondered when the fire would reach across the eastern side of the Valley or reach the Topa Topa mountains along the northern side of the Valley. Everything turned on the winds.
Even before the fire began the wind was damaging Ojai' citrus belt. Fierce winds stripped unripe fruit from trees along the northern sides of orchards. Overall, about 5 percent of the citrus crop was knocked off in the wind before the fire. More mature varieties such as Navel oranges and avocados took the brunt of the wind.
The fire did crest the eastern side of the Ojai Valley midday on December 5th causing an exodus of families with children, asthmatic folks and elderly. The fire also had a hold on the south western edge of Ojai causing mandatory evacuation for Casitas Springs and parts of Oak View. It was very smoky and again hard to know what was going on with spotty electricity and cell service faltering. Somewhere in the midst of it all we simply turned to texting people (which is the method of communication that works best when the internet connections falter): "are you safe?"., "where is the fire at your end of the valley?", "do you know if it's reached your place?", "how are the kids?", "did your dad get out okay?", "evacuating to SB", "staying in Carp at Tom's for now", "what roads are open?".
On Wednesday evening (December 6th) the fire swept west across the northern side of the Ojai Valley. The valley residents were largely evacuated or sheltering at Nordhoff High School, located in an open area in the heart of the valley.
Several brave souls stayed behind to help emergency personnel hold the lines around the Ojai Valley. The list includes many of Ojai's finest citrus growers and their ranch hands; Roger Essick, Mike Sullivan, Bob and Rob Davis, Pat Norris and family, Jim Finch, Tony Ayala, The Cromer family-- the list goes on and on.
These are the people who know where the water valves are, how to get from one ranch canyon to another and what the historic movement of fire has been in the areas around our valley. Most of them own water tanks and tractors while some of them also own bulldozers and water trucks which were used to hold back the flames. Without the aid of these folks the fire could easily have slipped further into the Ojai Vallley. We owe a lot of gratitude to these ranch owners.
The biggest thing we are thankful for is that the wind toned down on Wednesday. Fire licked down the northern slopes of Ojai, but was not driven by the big winds of the previous day. We lucked out.
What damage was done to Ojai Pixie Orchards?
Fire can burn avocado trees, but it's harder to burn well irrigated citrus orchards. Most of the fire damage done to the Ojai Pixie orchards was along orchard edges which toasted in the heat. Orchard edges that had heavy brush near them took the brunt of the damage as heat built up and torched the citrus trees on the edges. Some of these trees will come back into production in a few years while others may have lost too many leaves or far too burnt trunks to come back. In the spring we will know which trees re-leaf and which simply do not have it in them. Once the trees make new leaves they can be pruned and will then take a few years to return to normal.
Most of our orchard recovery work has been fixing melted and broken water pipes and melted hoses. There are lots of hoses with holes in them where embers landed. Some growers had larger pvc pipes and water lines that bubbled like cooked marshmallows and need to be replaced. Of course there is still the trouble of having downed phone lines, limited cell service and a lack of sleep.
It has been a very different kind of holiday season. Perhaps when the ash settles with some light rain and the Ojai Pixies ripen in March we will get back to normalcy. Then we will have a big sigh and put the Thomas Fire in the past. For now it is still fixing time as we mend the hoses and hope for the best.