A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

West Coast Fires - Garden Update

Morning skies - 9/8/2020
Hello friends - As most of you are probably aware of, for the past week, the west coast has been suffering from intense wildfires and their associated smoke. We've had some requests for an update on how we are being affected, so here you go:

Monday Sept. 7th, 2020 (Labor Day) was a bit warmer than average but skies were clear.  Some time around sundown, all that began to change as sustained, dry, hot winds began to blow from the north and east - directly opposite of where we get our normal, prevailing winds - bringing smoke from the fires in the Cascade mountains - pouring into the Willamette valley, where we live. Periodic wind gusts exacerbated the problem and exploded the wildfires rapidly. Fortunately there were no significant fires in our immediate vicinity and so no threat that our 145 year-old wooden farmhouse would catch fire. The easterly winds were so hot and dry that some flowers and grassed on the east side of our host were browned and withered overnight!

Looking into our front yard. The day never got brighter than twilight. 9/8/2020
Sharing Gardens - Tuesday Sept. 8, 2020
We slept with windows closed but still we woke to dangerously smoky air-quality within our house and eerie, orange skies. Outside air-quality levels quickly shot up to hazardous levels and the smoke was so dense on Tuesday the 8th that we had to use lamps all day since light-levels never got stronger than twilight. Fortunately, Llyn's Mom sent some info on how to make a low-tech indoor air-filter using a box-fan which we began doing soon after.

Box-fan/air filter with wet towel. Really works! Here's a LINK - with info on how to make your own fan-air filter and other disaster preparedness tips.
Day two of the smoky deluge. Skies are a tiny bit clearer/ 9/9/2020
We briefly lost electric power on the first night but were fortunate that it came back on before the morning.  Others in our valley were not so lucky and spent over sixty hours without electricity during the worst of the smoke. For those who get their water from wells, this meant no running water. They lost refrigeration and the ability to cook food and had no power to run fans or air-conditioners to clear the air in their homes. Very stressful!

Air quality on Sat. Sept 12. No longer orange but still very hazardous! There are apartments less than 100 yards across the street, out this window that were completely invisible to us that day.
One of our wildlife gardens (food and flowers for birds and pollinators) - Sat. 9/12/20. usually we can see the neighboring school's athletic field out this window...
Everything outside became covered in ash. On the first day of the smoke we ran sprinklers on much of the gardens to rinse the plants' leaves, so they could continue to breathe and grow, even though sunlight was so heavily blocked for many days.

For many of us farmers, these fires couldn't have come at a worse time. Most everyone who grows vegetables in our valley was just heading into peak harvest time. The air-quality made it dangerous to be outside for very long to do necessary harvesting and all the Farmer's Markets got closed both on Wednesday and Saturday which meant there was nowhere for the harvests to go even if farmers could get food out of the fields!  

A sample of our harvest the previous week - before the fires came. Many vegetable farmers in the valley were just heading into peak-harvest time, ourselves included!

The gardens in peak production - picture taken late August 2020.
The ash got so thick on our greenhouses that it made them downright shady inside! We also had some concern that the ash might be caustic and contribute to the plastic's degrading so Chris got out there with a hose on Thursday and rinsed off the bulk of the ash.

Chris rinsing ash off the Ark greenhouse - Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020
Chris rinsing ash off the Sunship greenhouse. Air-quality was still very bad.
The Sharing Gardens canceled most of our CSA orders (members who receive weekly boxes of food) and, because very few people were venturing out of their homes during the worst of the smoke, two of the food charities we provide produce for had to put a limit on how much food they could receive. Much of the produce, once harvested and refrigerated is stable for awhile but our 110 tomato plants were just coming into peak production and they are very perishable. What to do? Fortunately, one of our friends and volunteers - Cindy Kitchen - who was aware of our plight began calling around and discovered a drop-off site for fruit and vegetable donations for victims of the fires, who had been forced to flee their homes. Cindy also found a food pantry in Corvallis who was running low on their fresh vegetable supply so we were able to send them some food as well.

Cindy arrived on Thursday afternoon to help us with the harvest. The skies were still quite smoky but had lost their orange hue. Outside air-quality was still dangerous so we used face-masks while harvesting and boxing the produce.

That's Cindy - on the right (with husband, Jim - Sept. 2014) who helped harvest and find homes for our produce this past week.
A sample of the harvest we sent to those in need during this past week of fires.
At the end of the week, when we tallied up all the fruits and vegetables that had been harvested and shared, it was our largest weekly total of the year - 534 pounds! (This compares with the three previous weeks of approximately 300 pounds each). We were so happy that all this great food didn't go to waste!

Meanwhile, being forced to stay indoors, Chris and I moved forward on food-preservation projects, which is always a big part of any September's activities. Our friend/volunteer Becky came over and helped us shell walnuts from last year (to store in the freezer) and brought some prune-plums to share - which we cut up to dehydrate. We also made raisins from our own grape vines.

Grapes we harvested to turn into raisins. Don't they look like jewels?
The smoke is finally starting to lift. The winds are shifting and bringing relief from ocean-breezes. Some of the fires are reaching containment (though it's likely that many won't be fully extinguished until the rains begin to fall in earnest later in the season).

It's hard to believe how much cleaner the air was just a few months ago. This view is taken of the gardens just as you come in the front gate. July 17, 2020
The Ark - greenhouse - July 17, 2020. Full of ripening tomatoes!
Our nearby town of Corvallis is doing an amazing job of providing food and shelter for some of those being evacuated from the fires. Some people are being housed in vacant hotels/motels; others, who have their own recreational vehicles, have been welcomed to the fair grounds. We discovered, the day after we made our food donation to the evacuees, that SO many locals had made donations of all kinds of food that, at least temporarily, the evacuation center could receive no more food donations!

Corvallis' Sustainability Coalition organized a partnership between local restaurants and farmers and volunteers to prepare thousands of delicious, complete meals both to evacuees being housed in motels and those who had ended up at the fairgrounds. If you would like to support their efforts, here's a LINK to their site.

Our much-used birdbath.
The wildlife are experiencing real challenges this week too. We have a shallow birdbath made from a terra cotta plant tray and, prior to the fires we only needed to refill it once a day but during this past week it's getting so many visitors - both for bathing and drinking - that we've been refilling it three and four times a day. I wonder if the ashes are irritating to their skin?

Wildlife needs extra help, now too.
The deer have been finding their way past the deer fences that totally surround three acres of our property. We've had to herd them out for the past three mornings. They're probably thirsty too, and tired of eating food that tastes like ash! Still, we can't let them roam free in our gardens and orchards because of the damage they can do to plants.
Everyone we talk to knows someone personally who has had to evacuate or actually lost property in the fires. Some are still waiting for permission to return to the site of their homes to see if anything still remains. We pray, wherever you are, that this message finds you safe and with the support and resources you need to get through these challenging times. And, if currently you are in a position to help others less fortunate than yourself, we encourage you to do so...
...especially those who aren't in a position to help themselves. Llyn with baby bunny who got scared out of his nest and couldn't find his way back home - Spring 2020.