It was about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, and Ventura resident Matthew
Fienup was driving up the 101 Freeway to Santa Barbara.
In the previous days, several fierce and unpredictable fires had erupted in two of Southern
California’s most iconic counties, Ventura and Los Angeles, and
more would follow in the days to come.
Driving north along what’s typically a stunningly beautiful
stretch of California coast, Fienup could see a wall of
fire to the right of the freeway. As he passed Faria
Beach, about 15 miles north of the city of Ventura, there
was some hope. The large palm tree nursery that’s visible from
the freeway was still there. When he drove back two hours
later, it was gone.
“It wasn’t just on fire, it was gone. It had entirely burned
down,” Fienup recounted.
Fienup is the executive director of the Center for Economic
Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran
University. As a Ventura resident and an economics
researcher, he’s watched in horror as the Thomas
fire has devastated the land he calls home.
The Thomas fire is the largest and most uncontrolled of five
major blazes that have hit Southern California in the last
week. Combined, the fires have burned through more
than 250,000 acres in multiple counties and have affected more
acreage in Southern California in one week than the 21 massive
blazes combined that ravaged the northern part of California
throughout the month of October.
The devastation the fire has wrought on the Ventura economy,
Fienup says, will be felt for years.
Palm trees explode into flames as the Thomas wildfire rages
in Ventura, California, on Dec. 7. (Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via
Ventura County is covered with orchards, mostly growing
avocados and citrus. The city of Ventura alone
has nearly 7,000
acres designated as agricultural land. Fruit produced
in the region is marketed mostly through large packing and
shipping companies and distributed all across the
It’s still too early to assess the complete effect of the
wildfires on the local agriculture industry, but what’s clear
already is that the damage will be significant, John
Krist, chief executive officer of the Ventura County’s Farm
Bureau, told HuffPost.
The Thomas fire swept through hillsides containing thousands of
acres of avocado groves between Ventura and the neighboring
city of Santa Paula. Krist gauged that probably at least
several hundred acres had been damaged or destroyed.
Portions of the fire that reached into Carpinteria and Ojai
also blazed through land heavily planted with avocado and
citrus orchards. The CEO suspects there were also major losses
in the orange and mandarin orchards on slopes above the Ojai
Valley, where fires wreaked havoc last Wednesday night.
As of Monday evening, the Thomas fire was still just 20 percent
contained and actively spreading into neighboring
It will take some time before growers can fully assess how much
of their crop they ultimately lost, and the devastation may not
be limited to burn areas.
Farmers have experienced significant losses as record high Santa Ana
winds, which have fueled the fires, have also flung
fruit off the trees.
Growers will also have to repair damaged irrigation systems and
monitor the denuded hillsides that could give way to mudslides
and debris flows once the winter rain arrives.
Farmers will ultimately have to wait several weeks before
deciding what to do with the scorched trees. “Some may
look terrible now but recover. Others that appear to have
suffered only moderate damage may collapse later when
stressed,” Krist said.
It isn’t necessarily difficult to replace damage trees, he
noted. But it could take up to five years before a new tree
starts bearing fruit.
It’s one thing for a natural disaster to hit an area with a
strong economy, but in a place like Ventura, which was was
already experiencing economic hardship, the repercussions may
Ventura’s agricultural industry had been struggling in recent
years, hit hard by California’s record drought. While the
drought officially ending in
the rest of the state in April, it is ongoing in
Ventura. In addition, the local agricultural industry had
a hard time adapting to new regulations on the chemicals that
can be used on farms, as well as overtime and minimum-wage
standards. All of these factors contributed to reduced crop
yields in recent years.
As Ventura’s agricultural industry tumbled, one of the
region’s other major industries went into decline as well.
Amgen Inc., the largest independent biotechnology firm in the
world, is based in Thousand Oaks and is one of Ventura
County’s biggest employers. The company laid off hundreds of
Southern California employees earlier this year,
with many of the positions being relocated to Tampa,
“Ventura County is uniquely unhealthy compared to neighboring
counties,” Fienup said. “That’s where a natural disaster of
this sort is really troubling. I don’t think Ventura County
is well-positioned to absorb an impact of this size.”
A view of Ventura County’s avocado and citrus orchards on a
typical day, pre-fires. (Anne Cusack via Getty Images)
He said the county’s recovery will likely be “slow and
difficult” and pointed to the Tea fire that destroyed 210
homes in the nearby community of Montecito in 2008. As of
percent of the homes destroyed in that fire still
had not been rebuilt.
If there’s anything that gives Fienup hope right now it’s
that Ventura County “has a very strong community identity.”
“It’s the cohesiveness of that community that I think gives
it real strength,” Fienup said. “There have been amazing
examples of generosity as people reach out to those who have
lost their homes.”
But, he added, “the economic reality is much less
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