Rural Resilience Sonoma County’s Agriculture Community Reflects One Year After the Fires

Written By: Brytann Busick
Published: October 1, 2018

October marks the first anniversary of the 2018 wildfires. Sonoma County Farm Bureau Members woke on October 8, 2017 to the devastating news that the county was ablaze. No two experiences were the same, but everyone in Sonoma County was impacted.

Cheryl LaFranchi at Oak Ridge Angus had to water 600 head without power for 25 days and lost a barn, Marcia Mickelson’s cattle on the Kunde Estate were rescued by a fleet of friends with trucks and trailers, David Cooper at Oak Hill Farm lost his house in the fiery blaze, the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association came to the aid of farm workers in need of housing, Kevin Barr persisted through winegrape harvest despite limited road access, smoke and flames, and Paradise Ridge Winery lost nearly everything.

Although slowly, businesses and homes are beginning to rebuild, and the landscape has regrown, however, for some, daily life has yet to return to normal. Farm Bureau Members share a common thread of resilience that is ever-present in an agricultural community as they work to recover from October’s devastating fires. They caution of the real potential of another fire occurring and the importance of utilizing the benefits of agriculture to keep our community safe. Agriculture is a part of the arsenal of fire protection and prevention in Sonoma County and the rural resilience shown by farmers and ranchers in the community leaves no doubt that agriculture will continue to thrive, despite the devastation.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau Members share lesson learned, the value of membership in the agriculture community, and their outlook for the future as they recover a year after the fires

Cheryl LaFranchi
Oak Ridge Angus

“No barn, no bueno,” Cheryl LaFranchi, owner of Oak Ridge Angus said referring to the loss of a barn on her ranch during the fires. The ranch, located in Knights Valley, has been in LaFranchi’s family for 105 years. There LaFranchi raises purebred Angus cattle that are grass-fed and beer grain finished.

“There was no way to prepare for the barn going down,” LaFranchi said. “We thought it would lose a couple sheets of tin in the wind, but to see the full scope of it the next morning was so much more than you could ever imagine.”

Driving around the ranch on Monday morning after the fires, LaFranchi said it was dead calm and she realized that the valley was blown to pieces. Trees were down, telephone lines were snapped off, and the barn was destroyed.

The barn, built in the early 1980s, knocked down fencing, blew into two big hay fields and all the way to highway 128. Of the 23 large steel beams that hold the barn up, four were bent and one was ripped out of the ground completely.

“When the insurance guy came out he said that he had never seen a barn destroyed like that one was,” LaFranchi said.

Thankfully, the barn was rebuilt in May. Although there is no power to it yet and they are still working on the fences, LaFranchi said that they put a stack of hay in it the day after it was completed.

LaFranchi said that she feels very fortunate that all the cattle were fine. She attributes much of their safety to the fact that in October, the ranch has the least amount of grass and feed on it.

“Where the land was grazed there isn’t all the underbrush, so the fires burn through faster and don’t burn as hot,” LaFranchi said. “On our property, this helped to save a lot of trees and structures.”

LaFranchi said that the worse thing they found out because of the fires was how unprepared they were to be without power for so long.

“We water all of our cattle off of generators,” LaFranchi said. Being without power for 25 days was tough. We used generators until they ran out of gas at night, then started them back up again at 6:30 a.m.”

She said the agriculture community came to their aid and provided much needed help in a tight spot.

“So many people called to check on us, sent us generators and hay, and helped us with anything we needed,” LaFranchi said. “Feeding about 125 bales of hay a day for 600 head of cattle was a real trial during the fires, but the ag community was great.”

Marcia Mickelson
Kunde Estate

“I knew that a fire in this area was inevitable, absolutely,” Marcia Mickelson, Chief Operating Officer of Kunde Winery and fourth generation Kunde said. “In fact, my husband I were driving along Highway 12 the week before last year’s fires and we looked up at the Mayacamas Ridge and said, ‘Boy, when this thing goes, it’s really going to go.’”

Just a week later Michelson’s predication came true.

“We were sitting there watching the whole thing burn up and then got a call at 10 a.m. that the ranch was on fire,” Mickelson said. “We had just moved about 150 head of weaned calves, so we had to try to get them to safety.”

During this time, Mickelson said she was reminded of the benefit of being a member of the agriculture community in Sonoma County.

“We were very fortunate to have some very good family and friends who are connected to CAL FIRE that were able to help evacuate our cattle,” Mickelson said. “They sent a convoy and we had about a dozen trucks, trailers, friends and cattle associates that offered to help get the cattle out.”

Mickelson, who said she had goose bumps recalling it, said that the fires reminded her of the value of the being a member of the tight knit community in the cattle industry.

“It was remarkable,” Mickelson said. “They dropped everything to help us load the cattle up to get them to safety, without question. “You can always count on our neighbors and friends in the ag community, that’s how it works.”

Mickelson said that she is still amazed that they didn’t lose one head of cattle and although they did lose some pasture, the Kunde Estate didn’t lose any structures.

“So many people lost so much,” Mickelson said. “We feel very fortunate but know that for others, the recovery to this county will take decades.

Mickelson said that she hopes the fires helped the community to realize the important role agriculture plays in keeping Sonoma County safe.

“Sonoma County is very lucky that we have as many acres of vineyards and grazed lands as we do because if we didn’t, I can’t image how bad it would have been.” Mickelson said. “I think that between the vineyards and the grazed lands, agriculture saved our county.”

Oak Hill Farm

Anne Teller is the owner of Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen. Since the 1980s the farm has had a self-help produce stand in the Red Barn, which is currently open Saturdays and sells produce to restaurant accounts in the Bay Area.

David Cooper, who became Farm Manager in 2008, oversees 25-30 acres of growing fields of annual vegetable production at the farm.

One year ago, Teller and Cooper were doing the same things they are doing now; getting ready for pumpkin season, harvesting, planting fall crops, putting in cover crops, and getting ready for rainy season.
Then, the fires happened.

Cooper said that they were only five miles from where the fire started.

“I got a call at 2 a.m. from a friend who said that we needed to leave because there was a fire in the canyon,” Cooper said. “There was so little communication that we didn’t realize how bad it was. The wind was whipping, and we could see a glow in the distance, but it looked far away.”

When Teller evacuated she looked back at David’s house and saw the sky aglow.

“David was the first impacted,” Teller said. “The fire came from the north and it didn’t take more than a couple hours to totally devastate his house, all his belongings, and his chickens.”

Cooper said that there was complete destruction of his house and that if the wind hadn’t died down, the whole property would have been destroyed.

“We were lucky because the valley part that struck us didn’t really get going too bad,” Cooper said. “Once the fire was up in the woods and forest it became lethal. The main thrust was to stop it in our area to prevent it from getting into Sonoma.”

Teller said that she is confident that ag lands saved many acres of land in the area and that without irrigated and open spaces, damage from the fire could have been so much worse.

“Oak Hill Farm has open and irrigated fields that are far less dense than the forest, so the fire didn’t move along as easily,” Cooper said. “Once the wind died down our irrigated fields acted as fire breaks.”

He added that even without the fire, the wind was terrifying and created tens of thousands of dollars in damages on the property.

“The whole property is 700 acres and before the fires we had 12 buildings,” Teller said. “We lost the old farm house from late 1800s that David lived in, the shop from the 1950s, the fuel storage shed, the goat house, wood storage, and an outbuilding.”

Teller said that the rebuilding process is going slowly because building costs are high, insurance is so costly, and reinsuring is a new game now. She said that it is horrifying to think of a fire of such magnitude happening again, but that it probably will.

“We’ve always known October is fire month,” Teller said. “We’ve always said beware, but no one knows what it’s like to go through it. I try to be optimistic, but I think we will feel the effects of the fire for years.”

Kevin Barr
Redwood Empire Vineyard Management

“Vineyards were a Godsend,” Kevin Barr, Owner and President of Redwood Empire Vineyard Management said, referring to the key role vineyards played in slowing the fire’s progress and reducing destruction. “Where there were vineyards the fire stopped. I think that last year’s fires taught people that vineyards are an amazing fire break.”

Redwood Empire Management manages vineyards in Sonoma County and Barr own properties, leases properties, and does custom farming throughout the County.

He said that it was hard to keep his business, headquartered in Geyserville, running despite the large quantity of grapes that needed to be harvested.

When the fires started, Barr and his crew were picking grapes on a hillside vineyard.

“The San Francisco Sheriff shut down access to where we were even though I had crews picking on the hillside,” Barr said. “We had grapes in gondolas ready to go but they wouldn’t let my truck through, so I could haul out the grapes.”

As the week progressed Barr said that essentially, Sonoma County got locked down and he lost access to properties he needed to harvest on.

“There were grapes that needed to be picked and wineries that needed the grapes,” Barr said.

Eventually, Barr said he called Ag Commissioner Tony Linegar to ask for help.

“Tony talked the authorities into letting the Ag Commissioner’s office lead us in,” Barr said. “We would meet a deputy at 5 a.m. and go in with tractors, forklifts and workers to harvest. We did this for two weeks straight.”

Barr said that he appreciated that the Sonoma County Ag Commissioner’s office was able to coordinate with other agencies, advocate for agriculture, and assist him in a time of great need.

In addition to working tirelessly to harvest during the fires, Barr also owns fire trucks for use in outlying areas of his ranches. He said he was able to bring some of his own equipment and trucks to help customers and neighbors battle the fire on their property before it spread.

He said that with professional resources spread thin that “you just had to do what you had to do, step up to the plate and help out.”

Barr said that in the face of the fire, the agriculture community stepped up to the plate in a big way.

“We in ag take care of ourselves,” Barr said. “We take care of each other.”

Karissa Kruse
Executive Director, Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation

Since the wildfires hit Sonoma County last October, more than 280 agricultural workers and their families received support through the Sonoma County Grape Growers Wildfire Housing Support Fund. The fund was a partnership between the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. Karissa Kruse, Executive Director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, said that the money raised has been used to support the need for new and/or temporary housing, supplement lost wages, provide gift cards to purchase new household items, food and supplies and to help pay utilities.

Kruse, who personally lost her home in the fires said that she quickly realized how challenging it was to navigate life post fires. So, she sprang into action. The Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation had an emergency meeting with Sonoma County Farm Bureau leaders to organize funds for relief efforts while the fire was still burning.

“I knew what it felt like to lose so much so I was pushed to do something immediately,” Kruse said. “Since we were able to respond so quickly in months we brought in over 1 million dollars in total support.”

The fund served 433 adults and 137 children, provide $15,000 in rent coverage for 11 families, which for some families covered rent for a two-year period, gift cards for household items, food, supplies, utilities, lost wages, and purchase of three RVs.

“We had no idea that we would raise that much,” Kruse said. “People were doing fundraisers for us, we received large donations from winery partners and stakeholders in the community, a couple wineries donated $50,000 and we received a grant from Redwood Credit Union as a part of the overall North Bay Fire Relief Fund.”

She said that the outpouring of support really spoke to what she already knew about farmers in the community.

“They really value their employees and take care of them,” Kruse said. “They are really good at coming together and working together to solve problems. I think this was a further example of how the ag community comes together.”

She said though, that the money raised far exceeded expectations and goes to show what an important role agriculture plays in Sonoma County.

“Agriculture is nothing without the families that support it,” Kruse said. “It was amazing to see the support that was there for agriculture and for our ag families specifically.”

The Sonoma County Grape Grower Foundation is still working to raise money for workers and their families and the donor designated funds raised for the fire in the first four months will continue to support the housing recovery.

“As we approach the one-year anniversary of the wildfires, the aftermath of this devastating event continues to impact the livelihood of our ag employees in Sonoma County,” Kruse said. “We invite you join us as we work to provide support to ag employees and their families who have been impacted by the wine country wildfires.”

Sonia Byck-Barwick
Paradise Ridge Winery

Sonia Byck-Barwick, co-owner of Paradise Ridge Winery, said she remembers staying up all night after the fires broke out wondering if their winery and event center would still be there in the morning, only to find out that they weren’t.

“We lost our tasting room, event center, and wine making building,” Byck-Barwick said. “We also lost three homes and 7 outbuildings on the property. The only building left standing was a shed.”

Thankfully, they didn’t lose the vineyards, although some were damaged. A year later, the majority have come back and recovered. The lone shed is being used for storage, so they can continue to provide vineyard tours and wine tastings for wine club members.

Paradise Ridge Winery is well- known for its outside sculpture gallery, including the LOVE sculpture, which became a symbol of strength and resilience in Sonoma County post fires.

“I am proud that something that we have can be a symbol of how strong and resilient Sonoma County is,” Byck-Barwick said.

She said that the vineyards and the outdoors art exhibit is at the heart of what they do, and thankfully, they both survived.

“I can’t believe it has been a year,” Byck-Barwick said. “It still is surreal to think back on that night. At the time I didn’t believe something like this could possibly happen, but the reality was that we had twostory high flames on the property.”

She said though, that despite all they lost, in the end the most important thing was the safety of people.
“Everyone got off the property, Byck-Barwick said. “Although, sadly, we later learned that some of our neighbors down the hill didn’t.”

Byck-Barwick said that they are in the process of rebuilding, but that it’s a daily uphill battle.

“The recovery process has been a roller coaster. You don’t know what you are doing really, and you just figure it out. Every time you move forward there is a new roadblock in your way,” Byck-Barwick said. “It’s been like that for a year and it’s exhausting. It’s a lot of relentless hard work and everyday there is something new to learn and deal with.”

She said that one of the biggest roadblocks was debris removal and that they are still working on insurance claims for business and personal effects and business interruption. Even getting temporary offices took three months. She said that throughout this experience she has been reminded how amazing our community is.

“It’s a sad thing that happened to our community, we are a changed community, but I do believe that we are coming out of it stronger and the support and the love that people have shown is tremendous,” Byck-Barwick said. “Overall, I have a positive attitude and am moving forward. I don’t see any other option.”

She said their goal is to come back and to keep their focus on why Paradise Ridge started in the first place, which was to be a big part of the community and to give back.

“We feel it is important to the community that we come back and not disappear,” Byck-Barwick said. “We are waiting on the start of construction for the new building, which should start in the next couple of months. It might possibly be that it will be two years to the day that we reopen. Wouldn’t that be something?”

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