Friday, April 29, 2016
Sonora Union Democrat
Rim Fire recovery plan released
By Guy McCarthy
Federal custodians of the Stanislaus National Forest are publishing a plan today detailing how they intend to stimulate recovery from the gigantic 2013 Rim Fire that destroyed 400 square miles of mountain watersheds more than two years ago.
“Recovery from an event like the Rim Fire takes years,” Jeanne Higgins, supervisor for the Stanislaus National Forest, said Thursday in Sonora. “Recovery from the 1987 Stanislaus Complex Fire took about 10 years. This is a long-term investment in recovering this landscape.”
The plan documents specific actions Higgins has decided on with input, analysis and collaboration with multiple individuals and stakeholders. Release of the plan today opens a 45-day objection period. The Forest Service is seeking critical feedback from more than 90 people and groups who have participated in reforestation planning over the past two and a half years.
“It’s a big deal, because there’s a large landscape that needs to recover,” Higgins said. “It’s huge in the fact that this is our opportunity to help this landscape become the forest we want in the future.”
Higgins said she expects a final decision on the reforestation plan will be issued by late this summer.
“After that, work can begin on the ground,” Higgins said.
Between August and October in 2013, the Rim Fire burned 257,314 acres, destroyed 11 houses and 98 outbuildings, leveled several residential camps, caused 10 injuries and cost $127.3 million to fight. Most of the fire damage occurred in and near the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park.
The fire is still considered the largest in 150 years of Sierra Nevada records, and the third-largest in California history, Stanislaus National Forest staff said Thursday.
More than 90,000 acres burned at high intensity in the Rim Fire, in the Stanislaus forest, in Yosemite, and on Sierra Pacific Industries lands, said Maria Benech of the Forest Service. She is designated the interdisciplinary team leader for Rim Fire reforestation.
“That’s 35 percent of the total footprint,” Benech said. “Historically, larger fires have burned 5 percent to 8 percent at high intensity. This is a concern.”
Initial planning for timber salvage efforts, roadside hazard tree removal and replanting trees began in the Rim Fire footprint in late 2013. More than 2,200 volunteers planted trees last year and this spring.
The majority of restoration work that remains to be done is included in the new plan, which is formally known as a “final environmental impact statement, draft record of decision for reforestation of the Rim Fire area.”
Trees per acre
The proposed Rim Reforestation project covers about 42,000 acres of reforestation, plantation thinning, wildlife habitat restoration and noxious weed treatment on Forest Service lands in the 2013 Rim Fire area. Target areas are specifically located in the Groveland Ranger District and the Mi-Wuk Ranger District.
Individual elements of the plan include planting anywhere from 152 trees per acre to 514 trees per acre, Benech said. More than 5,700 acres are targeted for weed eradication, which is important for wildlife habitat and native plant species recovery.
Mary Moore, a veteran Forest Service hydrologist and a Rim Fire recovery coordinator, emphasized the proposed plan’s focus on overall watershed health.
“A healthy forest equals healthy watersheds,” Moore said Thursday. “You need a healthy forest to have good, clean water. Anyone who uses the Tuolumne River watershed should be concerned.”
More than a third of the Tuolumne River watershed lies within Yosemite National Park, and it helps irrigate more than 300,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley. Entities that draw water from the Tuolumne River include the City and County San Francisco, Modesto Irrigation District and Groveland Community Services District.
“The objection process is an opportunity for those who have been involved in the analysis process to state any concerns they might have with the draft decision,” Higgins said. “Collaborative engagement has included groups like YSS (Yosemite Stanislaus Solutions) and others. Property owners, tribes, industry and the environmental community.”
Cal Fire blames PG&E for Butte Fire, will seek $90 million
By Brad Branan
A Cal Fire investigation has found Pacific Gas and Electric Co. responsible for the 2015 Butte Fire, one of the most destructive wildfires in state history.
The investigation released Thursday determined that the fire was sparked by a PG&E power line that came into contact with a tree, resulting in a wildfire that spread to more than 70,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties, killed two people and burned more than 900 structures. The Butte Fire was the seventh-largest in state history.
Poor tree maintenance by PG&E and its contractors led to a tree falling on a power line and starting the fire near Jackson, according to the 30-page Cal Fire investigative report.
PG&E released a statement Thursday saying, “We are reviewing Cal Fire’s report in its entirety. As we’ve said since Sept. 16, we cooperated fully with Cal Fire in its investigation on the source of the ignition for the Butte Fire. We are committed to doing the right thing for our customers and will respond in the normal legal process.”
The finding has led the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and Calaveras County to seek damages against PG&E. Cal Fire will seek more than $90 million in firefighting costs from the utility, according to a news release from the agency.
Calaveras County supervisors say they will seek “hundreds of millions in compensation” from PG&E for the fire, estimated to have caused more than $1 billion in damage in that county.
The county expects to file a civil lawsuit in Superior Court, seeking to recover the county’s costs of responding to the fire, cleanup efforts, and losses of public property, county officials said.
“We are shocked and dismayed by the extent of PG&E’s negligence and will actively seek justice for Calaveras County and its citizens,” said Cliff Edson, chair of the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors.
The county will also ask the California Public Utilities Commission to investigate PG&E’s role in the fire, much like the agency did following the fatal 2010 pipeline explosion in San Bruno, said county counsel Megan Stedtfeld. The San Bruno blast killed eight people and destroyed a neighborhood, leading the commission to order the utility to make $1.5 billion in payments to the state and customers and for safety improvements.
The utility has already begun making payments to fire victims without insurance, according to a news release from Calaveras County.
The county’s legal action seeks to recover losses only to public property and resources, Edson said. Individuals seeking loss recovery must seek other means, and several people have already filed lawsuits against PG&E for the fire.
“Calaveras County was devastated by the Butte Fire,” said Edson, who added that nearly all of the structures lost were in Calaveras County.
The Cal Fire report was completed by Gianni Muschetto, a battalion chief in the agency’s Camino office. He was called to investigate the fire not long after it started and eventually found a fallen tree that had burned next to a power line and did not see anything else that could have caused it to burn, according to his report.
Using aerial photographs, Muschetto could tell that PG&E had removed trees in the area before the fire, according to his report. A stand of trees surrounding the one that burned was removed. That was poor tree maintenance because it left the remaining tree “exposed to open space” and “prone to failure,” Muschetto concluded after having an arborist review the evidence.
The report found violations of two public resource laws and two health and safety codes, including one that says a fire caused by a failure to correct a hazard makes the party responsible for the costs of suppressing the fire.
The fire spread over the course of 22 days, compounded by the drought, triple-digit temperatures and steep terrain.
“At its peak, nearly 5,000 firefighters battled the blaze. Resources included 519 fire engines, 18 helicopters, 8 airtankers, 92 hand crews, 115 bulldozers, and 60 water tenders,” according to Cal Fire.
Cherry, strawberry farmers contend with odd weather
By Christina Cornejo
As heavy rains fell in Lodi this week, several strawberry and cherry farmers were bracing themselves for impact. When the sun finally broke through, cherries seemed weather the storm, while some strawberries didn’t fair as well.
Mey Chao, who runs the Chao Farm stand on Kettleman Lane near Highway 99 was thankful for the rain, because it is much needed, but the effect on her strawberry crop was devastating.
“We lost 60 percent of our strawberries,” said Chao. “Even the green ones molded.”
The stand, which is normally packed full of strawberries had a larger portion of other locally-grown crops such as asparagus and cherries.
Local cherry farmers welcomed the rain and cool temperatures, but were watching to see if temperatures would rise soon after the storm — this usually causes the fruit to split, according to Joe Valente, vineyard and orchard manager for Kautz Farms.
Valente has seen a lighter crop for his cherries in the Lodi area for the past four years. He and similar farmers haven’t been able to identify if the cause is related to the drought, to extended periods of hot and dry weather, or due to rain at inopportune times.
“Whatever the reason, the trees just aren’t producing. It’s not even an average crop,” he said.
There are positives to a smaller crop, however, in that the quality and size of the cherries are good, Valente said.
While Valente’s Bing cherries will need another 10 days before they are ready to harvest, several other cherry farmers are beginning to harvest and send fruit to packing plants.
Packing plants are already two weeks into packing cherries this season, according to Tom Gotelli of OG Packing.
Much of the crops are coming in from farther south in the valley, Gotelli said. The cherry crop from the northern part of the valley is lighter, he said.
As of Thursday, it was a bit too soon to judge any potential damage left by the storm on the cherry crop county-wide, according to Tim Pelican, San Joaquin County Ag Commissioner. It is still early in the season which runs until the end of May.
“We’re just starting to gather information,” he said.
Contact reporter Christina Cornejo at email@example.com
Global consumers: More almonds, please
By Kristina Hacker
Driving through the Turlock countryside, almond orchards dominate the landscape and according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the healthy nut has taken over large parts of California also.
The NASS reported Wednesday that California’s 2015 almond acreage is estimated at 1,110,000 acres, up 6 percent from the 2014 revised acreage of 1,050,000. Of the total acreage for 2015, 890,000 acres were bearing and 220,000 acres were non-bearing. Kern, Fresno, Stanislaus, Merced and Madera were the leading counties in almond acreage, having 73 percent of the total bearing acreage.
The rising popularity of the almond is no surprise to Stanislaus County growers. In 2013, almonds took the top crop spot from dairy and earned the title as the county’s first $1 billion crop at $1.2 billion. Almonds were also the top crop in 2014, with 164,314 harvested acres bringing in an overall value of $1.4 billion.
According to Stanislaus County Farm Bureau Executive Director and almond grower Wayne Zipser, the almond industry has done a terrific job in marketing the almond to global consumers, which has created an increasing demand for the nut — 70 percent of the state’s almonds are exported out of the United States.
“If something tastes good and is good for you, there’s going to be a demand,” he said.
Even with the historic growth in almond acreage, Zipser said state farmers still haven’t out-produced the demand. According to the NASS, preliminary almond bearing acreage for 2016 is already estimated at 900,000 acres, an increase of 10,000 over 2015.
To meet this demand for almonds, local farmers aren’t buying up parking lots and turning them into orchards.
“We’ve seen a lot of land converted from row crops and field crops to almond orchards,” said Zipser.
A recent analysis by Sacramento-based agricultural and environmental consulting firm Land IQ confirms what Zipser is seeing locally.
Almond acreage growth across California over the last 10 to 15 years has replaced both perennial and annual crops. This includes cotton, vineyards, non-irrigated grasslands, alfalfa, grain and hay crops, tomatoes, corn, mixed field crops, irrigated pasture and more. Of the almond acreage planted during this time, 96 percent of it lies within the Central Valley’s historic irrigated area, most often replacing other irrigated crops. According to Land IQ, only 42,000 acres of growth over the last 10 to 15 years has occurred within previously non-irrigated grasslands.
“Almonds take up about 14 percent of the state’s irrigated farmland but uses 9.5 percent of California’s agricultural water, less than a proportionate share,” said Almond Board of California President and CEO Richard Waycott. “Because of the industry’s commitment to research and efficiency, growers use 33 percent less water to grow a pound of almonds than they did two decades ago.”
One of the ways the Almond Board is working to better the state’s water situation is through groundwater recharge. ABC partnered with University of California researchers, conservation nonprofit Sustainable Conservation, Land IQ and others to investigate leveraging California’s one-million acres of almond orchards for groundwater recharge.
“This research and its application on California’s almond orchards may become an important component in sustainably managing California’s groundwater which will benefit not just farmers, but all Californians,” said Waycott.
UC Davis researchers breeding new strawberry varieties
By David Castellon
PRUNEDALE – If you’re a fan of strawberries, chances are your primary considerations are size; whether the fruit has rich, red color; and how it tastes.
But for Tom Ramirez and other strawberry growers, that’s just the start of what goes into deciding which varieties of the fruit to grow.
There’s whether the fruit is resistant to the diseases and insects that threaten some strawberry crops, how firm the fruit is so it can survive being packaged and shipped, when the strawberry plants begin producing their fruit and how easy it is to pick the fruit.
The latter is rarely considered by consumers, but it’s crucial to growers, said Ramirez, who runs the 70-acre Elkhorn Berry Farms here.
Besides growing his own strawberries, he has provided a quarter acre of his farm as a test-growing site for potential new varieties of strawberries being developed by researchers for the University of California, Davis Strawberry Breeding Program.
Currently, 68 different varieties are being grown here, and members of the UC Davis breeding program arrived Wednesday to look at the progress of the fruit and get input from Ramirez and his workers.
And, of course, they were there to taste some of the fruits of their labor, among them Steven J. Knapp, a geneticist who late last year was appointed head of the Strawberry Breeding Program.
“It’s better. It’s aromatic,” he said after biting into one strawberry, which had a peachy flavor he liked.
Later, he noted how thick the cover of green leaves was growing on another variety, which he later explained could be a problem for harvesting crews who might have to rummage through the leaves to find the fruit below to pick, slowing their harvesting time.
That’s a particularly important consideration these days, said Ramirez, noting that farm labor has become increasingly hard to get in this region in the past five years, and with California’s minimum wage going up, farmers will have to pay more for that labor.
As such, farmers will be looking to avoid anything that slows strawberry harvesting, so they’ll more likely prefer plants with light foliage if the yield and fruit quality are good.
These test variates were created by cross breeding the flowers from different strawberry varieties to try to combine the best element of each into the seeds that make new plants, Knapp said.
None of these test varieties have names yet, which isn’t surprising, because the Davis researchers started with 20,000 test varieties and, through initial plantings and research, whittled them down to the 68 here, Knapp said.
And once the research is done in Prunedale and at four additional test grow sites in Salinas, Oxnard and Santa Maria, the best prospects will be planted next year in “strip trials” at larger fields for more testing.
After that, by late next year Davis officials could announce one or more new variates of strawberries that the breeding program will produce and make available for sale to commercial growers, Knapp said.
In fact, the program has been averaging one new variety per year since 1968, and while those variates are primarily developed with California commercial growers in mind, Knapp said the estimated 1.1 billion plants – or “clones” – sold annually go to about 80 countries.
Currently, eight or nine varieties of strawberries are grown commercially in large numbers in the Monterey Bay region, along with another eight or nine proprietary varieties bred by some of the larger berry produces, he said.
As for why new varieties are needed, Rick Tomlinson, president of the California Strawberry Commission, who joined Knapp and the other researchers on their visit Wednesday to the Prunedale grow site, said it’s not just being competitive in the marketplace that’s driving this.
For example, a lot of the research is being driven by the need to make the fruit more resistant to disease, damaging insects and drought. And further breeding is needed to ensure that resistance doesn’t come at a cost of taste, size, yields and longevity, he said.
Atwater twins make history as state FFA officers
By Brianna Calix
Atwater High School seniors Andrew and Amanda Skidmore, twins, made history this week in Galt when both were elected sate officers for Future Farmers of America.
The brother and sister are the state’s first set of twins to be elected as FFA officers, said Jim Aschwanden, executive director and FFA center manager. On Monday, Andrew was elected president and Amanda secretary. They represent 83,000 FFA members statewide.
Andrew and Amanda, 18, both expressed gratitude to their teachers, fellow FFA members, the community and school for being elected.
“ ‘Thankful’ doesn’t even begin to describe how we’re feeling,” Amanda said.
Natalie Borba, Atwater’s ag leadership and ag biology teacher, said she’s known Amanda and Andrew since they were in 4-H.
“We’re extremely proud of them. They’ve worked really hard,” she said. “They have this intrinsic motivation and they’re so supported by the other members of the Atwater FFA.”
Both have been involved in numerous FFA activities. Amanda participated in “reciting the creed,” “prepared public speaking,” “parliamentary procedures,” being a dairy judge and forming a marketing plan. Andrew was in ag mechanics, extemporaneous public speaking and various supervised ag experience projects, such as raising animals.
The twins decided to run for state office separately, but they discussed the different outcomes with one another before applying.
“We calculated the odds of us both getting it, and the number was pretty scary,” Amanda said.
More than 80 students from across the state applied to be a state officer. The applicant pool was cut down to 37 students who went through 14 hours of interviews over four days. In the end, the top 12 candidates were voted on by two delegates each from the state’s 320 chapters.
“It was like swimming a relay, and then someone hands you a 100-pound weight,” Andrew said.
Amanda found out she won the election for secretary before Andrew.
“I was in tears,” she said, “but at that point I was more worried about Andrew making it.”
The duo will postpone beginning college for one year and make visits to FFA chapters across the state.
Before being elected, Andrew planned to attend Iowa State University and Amanda planned to attend Fresno State.
“We’ve spent the last 18 years of our lives together growing up in the same household,” Andrew said. “We knew we’d go separate ways in college and that it would be OK. No matter the outcome, there’s always other ways to serve.”
Denise Skidmore, the twins’ mother, said they will make good teammates along with the other officers.
“They get along so incredibly well,” she said. “Each of them has their own strengths. They complement each other in different areas.”
The Skidmore twins will move to the state FFA center in Galt in the summer and join the other state officers, who they call their new family.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477, firstname.lastname@example.org