LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
Firefighters, today, hope to hold on to the gains they have been making against the blazes in Southern California. More than a dozen wildfires have now been surrounded and nine others are in various stages of containment.
Still, the fires have done terrible damage. Farmers have been especially hurt. The economy of San Diego County, for example, depends largely on cut flowers, plant nurseries, citrus, and one of the nation's most expensive fruits: the Haas avocado. But agriculture in the area took a big hit last week.
NPR's John McChesney visited avocado country need the small town of Rainbow, and has this report.
JOHN McCHESNEY: We meet Eric Larson, the executive director of the county's farm bureau on a hillside, overlooking Interstate 15. He waves a hand across the blackened landscape on both sides of the broad highway.
Mr. ERIC LARSON (Executive Director, San Diego County Farm Bureau): This fire jumped an on ramp, a shoulder, eight lanes of traffic and another shoulder and went up the hill on the other side.
McCHESNEY: On the other side is a large palm tree nursery. Only thin trunks remain. And large stands of green forest on the hillsides and hilltops are marked by great stretches of brown. But they only look like forests to the untrained eye.
Mr. LARSON: Those are avocados there at the top of the hill and they…
Mr. LARSON: …took - those are avocados there. We…
Mr. LARSON: …yeah. It's - what's interesting about San Diego County is we don't have any native forests here. So when you see the tops or the sides of hill green, those are going to be avocado trees, 25,000 acres of them scattered across the county.
McCHESNEY: A gift of irrigation. California grows most of the nation's avocados, and San Diego County produces most of those. In the last week, though, many acres of avocado trees have been roasted by wildfires. The fruit hangs shriveled and browned from drooping limbs.
We walk up to one of the trees in an orchard, where the leaves are still tinted a faint green. Larson snaps of a limb.
Mr. LARSON: These were full of moisture, so if these don't ignite while the fire is right here, they get crispy like this, you know? And they don't necessarily catch on fire.
McCHESNEY: So what does burn? While the trees drop lots of leaves, which during good times keep needed moisture in the ground. But when a fire comes through, they're bad news.
Mr. LARSON: So that leaf litter of old, dry leaves actually ignited and caught fire. All that heat from those leaves then passes up through these trees and pretty much bakes them.
McCHESNEY: And sears into the tree trunks. We can see bark that's been burned away. If that burn is deep enough, the tree will die. And some of these trees are 15 to 20 years old.
So how extensive is the damage to the avocado crop? Larson says it's too early for a definitive answer, but a fifth of the orchards are in the burn zones.
Mr. LARSON: That doesn't mean we lost 5,000 acres, because in this grove -where standing in right here - we can see where the fire pushed into the grove. It didn't go through it.
McCHESNEY: Norman Traner has farmed avocados for 37 years. He's lost some of his fifteen hundred acres of trees, and he's irritated with the tight security here, imposed because there was looting in the last big fire of 2003. He says it's prevented him and other farmers from protecting their crops with hoses and equipment installed in the orchards.
Mr. NORMAN TRANER (Avocado Farmer): We have a lot of water here, tremendous volume and pressure. And we've made the investment to defend them but we need access.
McCHESNEY: Traner adds that he also can't get his workers pass the many roadblocks to help save the orchards.
Mr. TRANER: Sometimes, Border Patrol mans the roadblocks and then our workers, which are mainly illegal, don't have access.
McCHESNEY: Traner's face - lined with years of working in the sun. He's sad, as he stares down at an avocado nursery, where leafless spindles stick out of row on row of pots.
Mr. TRANER: Oh, so much work in a nursery and look at that all destroyed. Let's say four or five thousand trees in there that, you know, that would have been productive, but they're gone now.
McCHESNEY: So now, Traner and other farmers will go into their orchards, trim out the badly burned trees and wait to see if the others survive. Traner says he and many others have been through this before. And while this is worse, it won't drive them away.
John McChesney, NPR News, San Diego.
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