David Kaisel first came to the Capay Valley in Northern California about 30 years ago to learn to paddle white water on Cache Creek. “I remember coming up here when the river's highest… and seeing it right during the almond bloom, which is in the end of January, and thinking it was the most beautiful place I'd ever been,” he said. “I just love the place and never imagined that I’d end up back here.”
Decades later, Kaisel did return to the Capay Valley – this time as a farmer, growing heirloom grains and milling them into artisan flour. He began Capay Mills five years ago with a mission to reintroduce bakers and chefs to fresh-milled, locally-grown heritage grains. But his small business suffered a major setback on June 8, 2019, when the Sand Fire began near his home in Rumsey.
Nearly 1,000 firefighters worked for nearly a week to contain the wildfire, which scorched more than 2,500 acres in Yolo County. Ten days after the fire, Kaisel talked about what he lost – and what he learned – from wildfire.
A conversation with David Kaisel
Q: How have the wildfires affected the Capay Valley?
In the five years I’ve been here, we've had a couple of fires up here. This is quite a fire-prone area. It's dry, it's hot, it's on the western edge of the Sacramento Valley. Capay Valley is this long, narrow valley, and all the hills on both sides are primarily used for grazing and pasture. They had a lot of cattle on there. There are a lot of questions about how the grazing might have contributed or degraded the ecosystem, how the mix of grasses and trees and the natural cycle might have been disrupted to make this such a fire-prone area.
Last year, the California fire season started out with the Valley Fire, which originated in Guinda just five miles down the road. It ended up being quite a large fire. Luckily, it didn't affect any residences, but it took out some outbuildings, and a lot of structures up in the hills were affected. That fire came within about a half-mile here at Rumsey, went south and turned around and came back up.
At the time, I was renting another house down the road. I remember getting the lecture from the fire crews that I needed to stay there and get a hose, and clear all the burnable material from around the house, because within the next hour or two they figured the fire was going to be there. That was kind of terrifying, actually. I did what I could, and luckily they managed to stop it that evening, just down from the town. So it never actually came up this far, but it was a bit of a warning.
This year, with all of our rain, we've been watching this incredible bloom of weeds and grasses and just realizing how much fuel was on the ground. Luckily, this house was one of the access points for the fire last year. You can see that they cut fire trails up the ridges here. There’s actually a road right around the property that they bulldozed to get in and control the Valley Fire last year, so that was already in place.
Q: Tell me about the day of the Sand Fire – Saturday, June 8, 2019.
I do markets on weekends, in San Francisco and Oakland. I was at Ferry Plaza for my Saturday market, when my assistant who works at the Mill in Esparto called to say she'd heard that there was a fire in Guinda. And I kind of thought, ‘Well Guinda burned last year. That's Guinda, and it's five miles away, it's no big deal.’ And I didn't really give it too much thought.
Then I was driving back in that afternoon, and the traffic was terrible getting out of San Francisco, so I had come to a stop on I-80 in Vallejo when my landlord calls and he's sounding more than a little frantic. He said, ‘I think your house is gone.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said he'd been out here with a hose for the last hour trying to water down the house until the Highway Patrol kicked him out and told him he had to go because the fire was right here and it was a red flag warning. It had been blowing – even the wind in San Francisco was terrible – and it just had that ominous feel of the day. The wind was so strong. I knew it was hot out here, but I really didn't think we'd be getting yet another fire. Sure enough, turns out it came through.
It started over what we call the Arbuckle Grade. There was a dirt road that used to go from here over to Arbuckle, which is in the valley. That had historically been one of the main access routes here, but it’s no longer passable. It’s something our community had talked about after last year's fire because if Highway 16 gets blocked – which it does frequently by anything from landslides, to fires to anything else – and it's blocked to the south, we have no way to get out of here. But this fire somehow started near the Arbuckle Grade, and it blew over the hill and came down this way and they couldn't get fire crews in.
One of my neighbors saw the fire and called 911 to report it, and 911 said, ‘Yes, we know we're on it, we've got crews working on it.’ And my neighbor said it was two hours before they saw any equipment at all coming in this direction. The assumption was that equipment would be coming from over in the valley, from Williams or Arbuckle (northwest of Rumsey). For whatever reason, that never happened. When the crews finally did come on this end, they couldn't get to the fire because the road’s impassable, so they basically had just to watch it burn from here until it came down into the residential area.
By that point, everybody knew what was going on. People were evacuating and getting out of here. Anyway, as I was driving back from San Francisco, the landlord called and I had a couple of client calls. I was talking to one client, and she said, ‘Don't you have to get home to the fire?’ And I said, ‘You know, There's nothing I can do about it, and honestly if my house is gone, I'm in no hurry to go see what's left of my house.’ Everything I own is here, so I would have lost everything.
But I did finally get back here. There was just one fire crew left here in the yard, and they were hosing few things down. The house was still standing and, miraculously, my van and truck were here and they were fine. It looked like everything was okay until I walked around and saw the shed had burned. Inside the shed was my forklift, and behind the shed was my tractor. I walked around the shed and saw my tractor was just this smoking pile, and a fire crew was spraying that down… My canoes that I first paddled on here, they were all there and that had smoke pouring out of them.
The fire came through the yard and did a circle around the house. I don't know if that's thanks to Cal Fire crews spraying it down or what. Chet, my landlord, said that when he left, there was a helicopter over the house. I don't know if they were dumping water or what, but maybe it was through their work that the house was saved. Neighbors were saying there was supposed to be an order to let the outbuildings burn and just save the houses because PG&E had cut the power so there wasn't any water. None of our wells or pumps would work. Whatever water had to come in on the fire department trucks, or the Cal Fire trucks, and so they had to conserve that. I think that made sense that they were going protect the houses. But whatever happened, this home was saved, which was great.
I drove back prepared to have lost everything. As it is, I still lost my most important tools for farming – my tractor, mower, forklift and other tools…
Q: What was the effect on your grain crops?
I plant a couple of leased fields around here in town, and then I work with Tim at Riverdog Farm to grow grain further down the valley… The next field over is planted with some heirloom wheat, Sonora, and that burned a bit, and then the trucks drove over what was left, so that was pretty well trampled. A part of the field surrounding the fire station was planted, and I thought I'd lost all of that.
My timing, I think, was poor on planting because I planted and it just started raining nonstop for three months. So I wasn't expecting to harvest much of anything there, but lo and behold – sort of the miracle of wheat – it survived and had grown. I was thankful that was one field I planted, and then the field next to it I hadn't managed to plant because it was so wet. It was full of weeds and I finally went in there the week before the fire and mowed it because it was just getting embarrassing. Little did I know that four days later, it was going to be the main staging site for the fire crews. They’re landing helicopters in there and had all the trucks. At least they had a nice place to park their fire trucks.
I try to plant cover crops and grow heirloom varieties, which don't yield very well to begin with, but I’m trying to figure out ways we can grow with minimal inputs. I'm not doing conventional grain-growing, which is all heavy-tillage and wall-to-wall planting and that kind of thing. It's already difficult enough to grow grains traditionally, but it's basically impossible without a tractor and mower. The forklift I need because it's just me and it's the only way I can move things around is with the help of a little forklift. So, that's actually one of my most valuable tools. It just lets me move big bags of grain around or equipment or anything else which I can't do by myself.
Q: What are the lessons learned for you in terms of fire and more generally climate change?
It's actually one reason I'm growing these grains because they're very climate tolerant. You can dry farm them.
Wheat will grow without irrigation, particularly here in California. That used to be the primary crop here in Capay Valley. There was a railroad up and down the valley, and it was used partly to carry grain back down the valley. This is such a rich growing area for wheat and cereal grains. They are a very climate-tolerant crop.
We talk a lot now about the value of regenerative agriculture, but it involves things like focused grazing and livestock management and understanding in a more holistic way what are the complete ecosystems that are involved with not just food production, but with environmental sustainability. It's important to have animals. It's useful to have grazing out there, but it needs to be done in a way that understands how to control what is food for cows, but food for fire as well. We have to understand how to manage that in a way that minimizes risks.
We've got 10,000 years of practice, developing agricultural practices that worked in a non-technology-driven society. And I think they worked because they were focused on small scale. They were focused local survivability and resilience. Because of the lack of inputs that make it much easier to drive yields and things, you can just dump a bunch of chemical fertilizer on a field and you're going to get a big crop, rather than than taking the time to actually nurture the soil, understand water patterns, understand grazing patterns and have livestock on there.
A more balanced system generally shows more resilience to climate change than what you could call modern or conventional agriculture. I think that that's a really interesting lesson here to see.
Q: Why do you think this area is among the first fires of the season?
It's a good question. I think partly because we're at this interface between urban population centers and we’re fairly undeveloped here in these hills. This is the southern end of the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, which runs down to Lake Berryessa. It's pretty wild. There’s very little population in here, with just a few small towns. And I think that's part of it.
Then, frankly, there’s climate change. I grew up in California, and I don't remember it ever being this hot. Granted, I grew up in the Bay Area, which is far different from here in the valley, but a 106-degree day here – it’s nothing... The corollary of that is we've got an incredible amount of grass and fuel now on the ground. But I think this fire would have been much worse had we had a normal year of precipitation. Things would have been a lot dryer. Trees would have been much more liable to go up and everything else.
Q: Like Paradise, you only really have one road in and out of here.
Yeah, pretty much. But we only have 150 people here in Rumsey. We don't get quite the same attention, but it only takes one person dying because they couldn't get out to have a consequence. Yolo County does what it can, but they can't do it alone. The state is involved, and there are a lot of different actors involved. There are private land owners all around as well, and they've got their rights. But historically, it does not seem like there've been a lot of comprehensive plans looking at things like fires or floods.
During the winter, the creek gets blocked up. There are landslides up here. I think we had several last year and there was supposedly a huge flood here in 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake. That's perfectly capable of happening again as well. So we're in a pretty high-risk area here, and I don't know that there are clear, comprehensive plans for what to do in case of fire or a flood or whatever.
We do have the benefit of strong communities. I guess this is one of the aspects of rural living that I really appreciate – we're small enough that we can work together, and we all know our neighbors. During the fire here, everybody is checking on each other. People know each other and are able to direct the fire crews.
For emergency plans and that kind of thing, we've got pretty active community. If officials are coming out from the county or the state, they'll have an audience to sit and discuss some of the emergency planning. We have local folks in the community who are driving that as well, so that's good. We've got the foundations for building some things, but we still have a ways to go to make that happen.
Q: What will you do differently moving forward?
I plan to get my own mower and really get on it as early as possible. This idea of defensible space is no joke. I rent here and I was kind of leaving it to my landlord. But, honestly, it's my property that's at risk. My things here in the house are at risk. So I have some responsibility for taking care of it.Literally, this morning, I was looking on Craigslist for used little riding mower – something I can use to mow this stuff growing out and the weeds here.
I've been watering as well to the point where my pump kicked off yesterday. But I've been a putting sprinkler on the yard and just trying to keep things a little green.
Someday I would love to own property out here. If it weren't so expensive, I would. My intent would be to buy some land and build something. The first thing I think about is how do you build a properly resilient structure, something off the ground, something away from fuel. That just has to be the new normal here, given climate change, if we want to continue to live in places like this. Otherwise, we can all just move back to the city and buy our food from somewhere else.
Q: What’s your best advice to farmers who are threatened by wildfire?
Really take the time to stand back and look and look at your environment. Look at your resources. Think through the scenarios of what you’re going to do when PG&E cuts your power, because they will. They may cut it well before the fire ever gets to you so don't assume you're going to have water until the fire reaches your house, like it did here. Think through that.
Prepare an escape pack. Can you grab a bag of what's important? What do you need if you were going to lose everything? What would you hold on to? Make sure you can run with that. That certainly was on my mind as I was driving back here last Saturday. It's like, ‘Okay what can I afford to lose, or what can I not afford to lose?’ And luckily I have a lot of my irreplaceable paperwork is in a safe deposit box down in Woodland in a bank, so that's I figure pretty safe. For me, it was things like photographs of my grandparents, my mother's wedding ring. I figure everything else could go but when I came back, yeah, I grabbed the photos. I grabbed the ring. Most paper these days is in the cloud, but not everything. Contracts and mortgages, and anything that's still on paper – make sure you have that.
From a farmer's perspective, think about what you're planting around the periphery of your property. What are your irrigated crops? What are you dry farming? Maybe you want to keep your irrigated crops around the periphery. Again assuming the power is going to be cut, do you have generators? Can you run your wells, or can you run your pumps and irrigate without PG&E's help? Do you have livestock? I was talking with another neighbor last night who said the first thing they did and their biggest concern was to get their horses out. Have a plan for your livestock. It's not the time to think about it when the fire's on its way. You won't have time to deal with that.
So, yeah, it's serious. And it's not just fire. Flooding can cause equal damage and havoc and can be as unpredictable. I don't even know what we'd do if there were earthquakes around here, what that might entail, but that's definitely a possibility. This is good, to talk about it. If I had the time and resources – if I had some help for this – I would definitely be sitting down and doing more about it.
–June 18, 2019