Sonoma County Department of Agriculture/Weights & Measures December Update

Written By: Tony Linegar, Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner/Sealer
Published: December 1, 2019

Access for Growers During Disasters

During the 2017 fires, the Department of Agriculture/Weights & Measures worked with CHP, CalFire, and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office to gain access for farmers and ranchers that needed to perform critical agricultural functions such as harvesting, feeding and watering livestock, managing fermentations, and irrigating nursery crops.  The Department issued access permits and had staff escort growers into and out of evacuated areas.  During the course of those fires, we escorted 280 groups of people to perform these critical functions.  While we had hoped there wouldn’t be a need to do that again, we understood there was a real possibility of having similar fires in the future.  We learned many lessons through our experience in 2017 and felt confident that we could do it again if necessary.

Fast forward to 2019 and the Kincade Fire.  Luckily, as with 2017, most of the grapes had already been harvested.  As soon as the fires started, growers began immediately getting fruit off the vines in the affected areas, knowing that access could be limited and racing against the clock to prevent smoke damage to the fruit.  The Department immediately began working through the Sheriff’s Office and with CalFire to provide access.  Although we had experience from the 2017 fires, the Kincade Fire was different in that we had to deal with major wind events occurring at the same time we were trying to gain access for growers.  Prior to the fire, we had worked with County Animal Services to establish a division of labor – our Department would work on access for crops, and Animal Services would take on the responsibility for livestock and animals.  Overall, the division of labor was appropriate, worked well, and helped spread the workload across both offices.  Kudos to Brian Whipple at Animal Services for his efforts during the fires to assist our livestock producers.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Sheriff’s Office, specifically Sheriff Essick and Sergeant Mike Baraz.  Without their support and willingness to help our growers, access to agricultural properties would not have been possible.  Sgt. Baraz was the Sheriff’s representative at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and was in constant contact with Department staff throughout the event.  With his help, we adapted our program as needed to account for the windstorms and to modify our process as conditions changed.  Ultimately, the goal was to allow access to as many as possible while keeping everyone safe.

While the process was not perfect, we were able to issue access permits to 65 entities during the Kincade Fire.  We learned that it is useful to have each access permit issued specifically to an entity and to number those permits for tracking purposes.  With multiple outside law enforcement agencies and National Guard staffing roadblocks, communication can be a challenge.  One thing that growers learned is that even though an access permit has been issued, conditions can rapidly change and having a permit does not guarantee entry beyond roadblocks.  During the wind events, growers were not allowed in for safety reasons.  This is a reality we all must accept for this and future events.  The safety of growers and workers is the highest priority.

Our office being located within the mandatory evacuation zone and having a number of staff evacuated from their homes also made the Kincade Fire more challenging for the Department.  Together with my Department managers, we worked remotely to facilitate the access program, working around the clock throughout the event.  I particularly want to recognize three of my managers, Sue Ostrom, Pete Albers, and Gina Lehl, who worked tirelessly to vet the requests against our fire maps and issue permits.

One thing I know for sure is relationships matter!  Having good working relationships with Farm Bureau Director Tawny Tesconi and Sonoma Winegrowers President Karissa Kruse proved to be invaluable.  I was literally in constant contact with them day and night throughout the event.  They acted as a clearinghouse for all of the access requests, providing requests in the right format to Department staff so permits could be processed quickly and efficiently.  Many thanks and appreciation to Tawny and Karissa for their teamwork and coordination.  They too were working tirelessly around the clock with us!

Overall, the program was successful in providing access for many people.  Long term, however, we need to refine and further develop protocols for agricultural access during these types of events.  The difficult part is coordinating all of the agencies involved to make sure everyone is on the same page.  I believe that a statewide protocol must be developed that is portable and can be employed in any county for such disasters.  The development of a statewide protocol must be lead by CalFire and the CHP but must also include the State Sheriff’s Association, Agricultural Commissioner representatives, and California Farm Bureau Federation.  While every disaster is different and presents unique challenges, I think it is necessary to provide as much certainty as possible with regard to everyone’s roles and responsibilities during these events.  Over the coming months, the Department will endeavor to start those conversations through the appropriate channels.

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