Aug 25, 2021
Latest California fire stirs fears of losing farm tourists

While the Dixie Fire expanded its reach in northeastern California, a newer blaze east of Sacramento put wineries and agritourism operators on edge in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Wineries in southern El Dorado County were under evacuation warnings late last week on account of the Caldor Fire, which ignited Aug. 14, said Barbara Kildow, manager of the El Dorado County Farm Bureau.

“We’ve got grapes down in south county,” Kildow said. “Smoke’s the worst, and we’re getting ready to harvest here in the next several weeks.”

The Caldor Fire spread quickly to more than 100,000 acres. Cal Fire crews have continued to battle the blaze, still largely uncontained, this week.

Kildow said El Dorado County Sheriff John D’Agostini opened his ranch to evacuees and their animals – and for a time had about 150 people and animals staying on the property.

Apple Hill, an agritourism powerhouse encompassing dozens of apple orchards, vineyards and Christmas-tree farms along a nine-mile stretch north of U.S. Highway 50 east of Placerville, also found itself dealing with the fire’s effects.

Evelyn Abel, whose family runs Abel’s Apple Acres in Placerville at the western end of Apple Hill, said her farm was preparing to open part time last weekend ahead of Apple Hill’s traditional full-scale opening Labor Day weekend.

“We’ll go ahead and open our doors – because people know that we’re not fully open,” she said. Howevever, she added, “I just don’t see people coming up here (because) the fire is here.”

The Caldor Fire was burning well to the southeast of Abel’s property, which is near the Placerville-Camino border. Until Saturday, the fire had stayed south of Highway 50. Abel’s farm was under an evacuation warning.

“Right now, we’re wondering,” she said. In the meantime, “we’re preparing. We’re filling freezers right now, and making the candy.”

Abel said her grandson has been encouraging her to prepare to leave. But Abel noted that the region’s abundance of orchards and vineyards stands between her and the fire and can act as a firebreak.

“That’s not like pine trees with sap in them that can explode,” Abel said. “We do have them around us, but not anything like a forest.” Besides, she added, “If it gets to me, it’s wiped out Apple Hill.”

A Facebook post from Apple Hill asked would-be visitors to hold off on traveling over the weekend to keep Highway 50 clear for first responders and evacuees. As of Monday, Highway 50 was closed from Sly Park Road to Twin Bridges. Only local residents with proof of address were allowed on the highway between Twin Bridges and Meyers, according to Cal Fire.

Evacuation warnings tied to the Caldor Fire extended south into Amador County, where winegrapes account for nearly half of the county’s agricultural production.

Jim Spinetta, a winegrape grower and president of the Amador County Farm Bureau, said his property was within the warning area. Spinetta noted that the Amador County Fairgrounds in Plymouth was housing large and small animals evacuated from the Caldor Fire area. He said people were staying in Plymouth and Ione.

Spinetta’s family has been farming in Amador County since 1852, and his grandfather served as a fire chief on Mount Shasta. When the family moved to its present property in the 1970s, Spinetta said, generations of fire-safety lessons were put to use.

“We cut down over 2,000 cords of firewood,” he said, adding that the family also made “huge firebreaks with large equipment. We have used selective logging.”

As a result, Spinetta said he wasn’t worred about his ranch.

“We don’t have any trees within a quarter mile of our structures,” Spinetta said. “Yeah, it hurts to not have the native trees there, but it feels good to know that you can be on vacation and know that your ranch that’s your livelihood and the wildlife within it are protected.”

Especially since Spinetta considers a blaze in his neighborhood to be inevitable.

“It’s a matter of time before a fire’s going to come through,” Spinetta said. “With the lack of timber management, we’re going to have these catastrophic fires. These are man-created issues, and we have to have man-creative solutions for our land and for our state.”

Spinetta said he takes his responsibility to the land seriously.

“We’re stewards of our land,” Spinetta said. “We take care of our land. We’ve been here for four generations.”

Kevin Hecteman, California Farm Bureau

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