How Farmers and Farmworkers are Combating California Fires

Frankie Wallace | 11.05.2020

All things considered, the fire season of 2020 is likely to go down in history as the year in which the effects of climate change finally became impossible to ignore. As of mid-September, in fact, California has lost more than 3.3 million acres to wildfires, and a further 1.5 million acres have burned across Oregon and Washington. For the nation’s farmers and farmworkers, the record-breaking fire season only added to an already complicated year, under the continued threat of COVID-19.

No matter the legal definition, the essential nature of farming cannot be denied. And in the face of a public health crisis, growing food to sustain populations becomes even more crucial to the future of humanity. Farmers who are combating the LNU Lightning Complex Fires as well as COVID thus face an uphill battle, in regards to both staying afloat on a financial level, and keeping wildfires at bay.

In September, NPR went so far as to refer to the one-two punch of coronavirus and copious wildfire smoke as a “double threat” of sorts. Those directly affected by the fires lost valuable acreage, and some even lost their entire farm, seemingly in an instant. Other farm workers were spared their jobs, but returned to work under smokey skies, breathing in polluted air.

In these uncertain times, California’s farmers are thinking outside the box for solutions to the excessive smoke, contaminated water, and various additional challenges caused by climate change. Small-scale, community gardens and improved decontamination systems are just two of the innovative methods being used by resilient farmers, in 2020 and beyond.

An Unprecedented Fire Season: How We Got Here

While it was a strange series of lighting storms that sparked the majority of the fires that ultimately decimated forests across the Western U.S., unseasonably warm temperatures were an unfortunate catalyst. Across California, various cities and municipalities saw the highest temperatures ever recorded — 121 degrees Fahrenheit in Woodland Hills, California, for example.

The troubling trend of excessive heat waves only served to effectively create prime conditions for wildfires to spread. High temperatures, dry conditions, and strong winds added fuel to California’s raging fires. And it isn’t only forests and natural spaces that were lost to the flames. From Napa wineries to dairy farms in Petaluma, farmers were forced to flee or adapt, en masse.

For those resourceful farmworkers who remained in the face of compounding danger, moving forward involves fire prevention and social distancing in equal measure.

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Protecting Natural Water Sources

In regards to devastation, wildfires are almost impossible to ignore, and the cost is astronomical. The damage caused by fires in California in 2019, from property damage to the destruction of natural spaces and wildlife habitats, came with an estimated price tag of $25.4 billion. And the economic impact of wildfires in 2020, on the heels of widespread job loss and business closures caused by COVID-19, is likely to far exceed those of the previous year.

In order to persevere in the face of uncertainty, farmers and farmworkers in California may want to turn their attention to water. Specifically, from a public health standpoint, water quality is essential when it comes to growing nutrient-rich crops. What’s more, poor quality water is a public health scourge in its own right: Contaminated water, whether the contaminant is wildfire debris or another source, can cause a variety of health conditions, including Hepatitis A and e. coli. When it comes to farming, contaminated water directly affects the quality of the crop, and can potentially harm those who eat the crop.

Preventing Future Fires and Protecting Farmland

In this way, water is a driving force in the farming plans of the future. Farmers need to be more vigilant than ever in regards to safe water sources, but overcoming continued wildfires will take even more effort. To ensure a bountiful future for Californian farmers, change must also occur at the societal level.

As climate change continues to progress, increased temperatures are likely to be the reality into the foreseeable future. As a response, farmers can alter their planting schedule to adhere to the timetable of a traditionally warmer climate. It’s also prudent to take a good look at the ways in which our personal habits, and those used in the day-to-day operations of farm management, may be contributing to the problem.

For example, you may want to take a look at your power sources, and their environmental impact. By switching to green or renewable energy on your farm or within your production facilities, your carbon footprint will be virtually nil. Whether you install an onsite renewable energy system or choose to purchase energy credits, you’re helping to keep harmful emissions out of the air, and out of the food chain altogether. Further, you’re putting the future of California’s food chain squarely in the hands of farmers, farm workers, and discerning consumers, rather than in the greedy hands of the corporate food system.

Ultimately, embracing renewable energy and protecting the Earth’s water sources are just small steps towards a healthier world. In the aftermath of the wildfires of 2020, California’s farmers are doing what it takes to help feed us and ensure safe growing conditions in the face of an uncertain future.

Cover image by Michael Chacon.