In August, President Obama declared a state of emergency in the West, and as of the middle of September in Washington State, there were 11 wildfires involving a total of 883,451 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

With destructive wildfires across California and up through Washington, predicting when they will happen is difficult, so it’s important to be prepared for the worst and know how to proceed should an evacuation order be given.

Although Peter Van Well of Van Well Nursery in Wenatchee, Washington, didn’t witness the wildfire as it consumed his Bluebird Inc. cooperative warehouse on June 28, he still learned from the experience. Bluebird Inc. is a fruit packing plant headquartered in Wenatchee.

“The way the fire situation was this year, no one saw it coming. The fire ruined the brand new cherry line, which was in operation for only eight days,” Van Well says. Van Well hadn’t had a chance to watch the new, state-of-the-art assembly line in action before it was destroyed. “It was eerie when we went in, the line itself looked like it had no damage but the electronics were fried.”

With 35 mph winds, flames and embers spread quickly, and the fire was so intense that even the rebar in the cement building melted. Fortunately, everything was insured.

In safeguarding his own nursery business, he hasn’t seen many problems. “Fires are not going up to irrigation fields, but last year and this year fires were so severe that orchards burned,” Van Well mentions. “We historically don’t see fire burning orchards.”

Wildfire in June destroyed a processing facility and equipment owned by Van Well Nursery in Wenatchee, Washington. The fast-moving fire devastated the structure before owner Pete Van Well had the opportunity to observe the state-of-the-art equipment in action.

Photos courtesy of Van Well Nursery

Fire-resistant landscaping

Fire-resistant landscaping is one of the most important things to factor in when protecting your clients’ homes and your nursery business from wildfire.

“People are starting to build in more rural spots, especially up in timber or remote locations,” Van Well explains. “We’re going to see a big emphasis on landscaping because of that.”

“Having a nonflammable roof, removing flammable vegetation like conifers and maintaining low vegetation around the property is important,” says Ted Alway of Derby Canyon Natives in eastern Washington.

Keeping the flammable vegetation away from the property at least 50 feet is a great starting point to deter fire.

“The big debate will be what plants to put in and how to make more fireproof landscaping,” Van Well offers. “Orchards were always buffers and still are.”

Alway’s nursery wasn’t threatened by wildfire, but his plants fit the bill with what customers want. In fact, his nursery was affected positively through sales that increased demand for his native plants.

“When fires happen, wildland restoration land owners want to plant back critical species, and we offer those,” he says. “It’s a demand we have. We also have homeowners who want to modify their landscape to be fire-resistant, so what we grow has been influenced by our native plants.”

According to the Ready for Wildfire website (http://www.readyforwildfire.org), which is sponsored by California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), recommendations for fire-resistant landscaping include using rock, mulch, flower beds and gardens as groundcovers and selecting high moisture plants that have low sap or resin content. Hardwood, maple, poplar and cherry trees are less flammable than conifers such as pine and fir, the website mentions.

Once an evacuation order comes, having an emergency kit ready to go at the last minute saves critical time. Items to consider packing quickly from your nursery include insurance information, important documents and digital files.

“We maintain a list of what to take with us and this year, we’re not at the evacuation level,” Alway says. “We’ve gathered critical things like laptops with files as well as current information such as a mortgage. Everything else is replaceable.”

Bouncing back

Rebuilding your nursery business after fire damage can be a challenge. Van Well recommends two ways to make the process quicker.

Having insurance ready to go can save time and frustration, he explains. Plus, utilizing community resources and relying on friends and neighbors, if possible, can lift spirits and get the job done faster.

All in all, “you just have to work hard, day and night, until you get back up to speed,” he says.

Alway mentioned that these record years in Washington and Northern California are going to become the new normal.

“This isn’t exceptional, we have to get used to this,” he asserts. “We’ve suppressed fires for 100 years and fuels build up. Now when they burn, it’s a wipeout burn, and we have a lot of flammables. What we see this year will not be exceptional next year.”

Alway notes that wildfires have to be treated like natural disasters and that support for management and control should come out of the government’s disaster funds.

“There has to be money designated for wildland treatments, logging, fuel reduction and increased emphasis because it’s a bipartisan effort,” he mentions. “We have to get used to this.”

North of the border

About five minutes over the Washington State border into Canada, Bluestem Nursery has seen its share of business disruption this season because of the rampant wildfires. Located in Christina Lake, British Columbia, the small nursery has been affected by heavy smoke from the fires – so much so, in fact, that owner Jim Brockmeyer had to shut down operations for a while.

“We just had to lay off our workers; that impacted our business,” he explains. “It wasn’t healthy for them to be out in the field, and really, there was hardly a way to get away from [the smoke].

“No work, and no workers for a string of days,” he continues. “That cut our shipping down to zero. Usually in the summer we don’t ship as much, but we do ship warm season grasses to the appropriate places. Actually, to this day I haven’t called anybody back in to work; I’ve just been doing everything myself. Certainly the business has dropped off.”

Brockmeyer estimates that he began to slow operations in June or July, and productivity was halted for a total of about five weeks. “There’s nothing else we could do; we couldn’t have the workers out there in these types of conditions.”

Brockmeyer says that the year started out cold and dry, then became “incredibly hot with no rain. We’re used to fires out here, every year,” he states, “but this year they were just over the top. Finally we did get the fires under control, we got some rain, but it’s still been pretty dry with above average temperatures.

“There’s no smoke in the air now,” he continues, “but every once in a while they’ll be doing these back burns, and I think I’ll start calling somebody in to give me some help and get some orders out, then they’ll do these back burns just over the border and all of a sudden our community is filled with smoke again.”

Brockmeyer received an evacuation alert, which is considered the first stage in preparedness, short of an order to vacate the premises. “In the whole time I’ve been here [since 1982], that’s actually never happened, we’ve never been on an evacuation alert. You have to start to think about what you would pack up.” It’s a good thing, too, that the actual order never came, as major highways were closed in three directions.

Fall orders will be shipped, Brockmeyer says, and he was able to ship seed throughout the summer, which “is always a slow time, but we just ground to a halt this year.” In mid-September, the nursery had already begun to send a few plants over the border.

Despite the disruptions, and despite the general consensus that weather patterns are changing for the warmer and water supplies are diminishing, Brockmeyer remains slightly optimistic.

“There’s a silver lining about the fires, in a way, because all that extra carbon can benefit the plants in the field,” he explains. “That sounds kind of funny to say, but it is true. All the ash that came down was sort of like fertilizer. And so in the midst of all of this, the plants seem to really benefit from the ash and the extra carbon enrichment in the fires, too. Nature has a way of taking care of things like that. It could have been worse.”

Cover Photo: iStock | rulg