West Coast producers left to battle wildfires on their own


Almost one month ago, Kendall Richard was tending to blooming tall-bearded irises on her eight-acre property. However, things have changed and that piece of land is now scorched, burned, and covered in ash.

Richard, the co-owner of Pleasants Valley Iris Farm in northern California, watched as the distant light of wildfires in the mountains become an aggressive blaze that consumed her home and flower farm in just over 10 minutes.

“All of the embers just got pulled right over the ridge and blanketed the mountain range beside us,’” she says. “You literally had minutes to get out.”

With her husband Mark, Richard has been growing irises for 14 years just outside of Vacaville. She is use to wildfires and evacuations. Normally, when wildfires begin picking up, evacuation orders would be sent out without failure and the area would be monitored. This year, however, the same manpower could not be seen. Because of a power outage, no evacuation notice was sent out to her area. She relied on instinct to make the call.

The family is not unique in its situation. A number of farmers in rural areas across California say that they have not received immediate support from state fire crews.

Cal Fire, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, says that the reason being is the large amount of lightning strikes, almost 15 thousand since August, igniting multiple areas thus leaving crews to prioritize higher populated areas.

“It was like the whole northern state caught on fire,” says Brendan Halle, a public information officer with Cal Fire. “You get resource thin because you’re having to go to so many different places.”

The fire department typically employs inmates to help with the fires using the Conservation Camp Program, but because the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released almost 18 thousand inmates because of COVID, they are several hundred bodies short.

Cole Mazariegos-Anastassiou owns and operates Brisa de Ano Ranch in Pescadero, says if they had relied on external support to fight the fire on their farm, the whole place would have burnt down. He and his partners started taking preventative measures when they saw slow fires were making their way to his operation in the middle of August.

“It became pretty clear that the country and the state weren’t really prepared for this,” he says, adding that the fire crews that were around the neighboring areas had their hands full. “We knew what we needed to do. This is the life that we chose to live... it wasn’t going to change our vision even though it was a bump in the road.”

Luckily for Mazariegos-Anastassiou, his crop was safe, but the fires burned irrigation systems, equipment, and a greenhouse.

Because resources were stretched thin and the fire crews were still overwhelmed, many neighbors decided to fight the fires on their own and watched for flare-ups.

Time like these show the resiliency of farm country and rural communities. The Richard family is working on rebuilding their homes. Relatives of the family created a GoFundMe for them, and they have also had amazing support from their customers.

During their rebuild, Mazariegos-Anastassiou posted to Facebook, “We were able to put together an impromptu irrigation system run off a borrowed generator... We’re having to scramble to try to get makeshift systems functional, by we will get it done with so much inspiration from everyone reaching out to support us.”

In a post on Facebook, Richard wrote, “It’s crazy how your entire world can change in such a short period of time. I just wanted to tell everyone how much your kindness, thoughts, prayers, and memories mean to us. Hearing from you all has really lifted us up and it means the world to us!”