Noble Orchard - Caught in the Drift
Noble-0007

Noble Orchard | Paradise, CA

In 1921, Jim Noble’s grandfather put down roots on Paradise Ridge. He built Noble Orchard – a home and business that would sustain generations.

But on November 8, 2018, the Camp Fire came roaring through, destroying 11 buildings and dozens of 100-foot trees. But Jim and Laurie Noble survived. So did their apple trees.

At first, the Nobles lived in a small fifth-wheel trailer on a friend’s property in Oroville. After more than 70 truckloads of ash and debris were hauled off their property, they were able to move into a trailer at the orchard in June.

They are still working on clean-up and repair, but it’s apple season and the trees are bent low with fruit. Their answer? Open the orchard for u-pick, and give away this year’s harvest.

Recently, Laurie and Jim pulled folding chairs under a charred pine tree and sat down to discuss the deadliest fire in California history – and the future of their family farm.

A Conversation with Laurie and Jim Noble

JIM NOBLE: Hi, I’m Jim Noble. I raise apples.

LAURIE NOBLE: I’m Laurie Noble. I’ve been here at the farm now for about 18 years. Prior to that, I was doing other things. But I’ve known him for 40 years.

JIM: This is our family farm. My grandparents came up here in 1921 and purchased a property. They were given the first crop that year. My grandfather was just raising apples, basically. They had started pears and peaches at one time, but pear decline hit. They didn’t know how to handle it. Pear trees started dying, so people started planting apple trees. And apple trees did pretty good up there. We’re in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It’s about 2,300-foot elevation here. Generally, below the snow line.

Q: Why did your grandfather pick this spot?

JIM: He picked this spot because it was available.

LAURIE: There’s a little more to it than that. The Paradise Irrigation District started in 1916. So, there was the promise of a steady supply of water for agriculture. Prior to that, it was wherever you could get water, however you could get it. So, the assurance of solid water made a difference. That brought a lot of people to come and develop the area, and many people started planting apples.

At one time, it’s described that there were some 50 or 60 orchards up here. Many of them were very small, but they did occur. And so, there was a long history of apples in this area with a small population.

Somewhere in the 1950s or 60s, there were land use changes that this area could be developed to preserve ag land down in the valley. And so, as Matilda sold her property and was sitting on the porch, John would look over and think, “I don’t have to work this hard. I think I’ll sell my property too.” It kind of correlated with retirement time for war industry people who had money and wanted out of town that they’d lived in all their life. There were a lot of mobile home parks that were put in this area, and many of those were on apple orchards.

JIM: But you also have economics of scale. If you’re too small, and you get elderly, you’re not going to pass your property on to your son because he went somewhere else and got a job. And, at times, apples really weren’t bringing in enough money on a small-scale operation to sustain an income. It was supplemental income.

Q: Before the fire, what markets were you able to serve?

JIM: At one time we were a wholesaler, but we eventually got squeezed out by Washington State and imports from Australia, New Zealand, South America. So, we became more of a direct marketer with the fruit stand here. We had people coming in seven days a week. But we’re going to down to about 12 acres of apples in the future, and try to put some new trees in the ground and up-scale the varieties a bit.

LAURIE: We definitely have a corner on the market at this point in time. There’s a possibility with this fire that somebody else may put in apples or decide that some of the land could be used for agriculture, and I think that would be delightful. It’s a testament to agriculture that the orchard did not burn and we have trees that are producing this year.

The apple trees haven’t been cared for so they’re small fruits. Too many of them on a tree have been breaking branches and so on. But just the fact that the orchard did not burn, and we’re sitting in a wooded area that burned probably at 2,000 degrees. These (oak and pine) trees are all going to be removed. There are a few that are still alive, but if you look, they may have burned two-thirds of the way up a 150-foot tree. They’re not going to be growing. They’re dying…

We’re just waiting for a logger to come and log this area. And then, we’ll start over with, hopefully, some wild flowers and a meadow appearance, because it’s going to be years before there are trees. We’ll see what happens with this but it could be many different things.

Q: How do you describe the Camp Fire?

JIM: Well, when it was time to go, there were flames shooting up about 100 feet in the air here and there, and you knew if you stuck around, it was not going to be good.

LAURIE: I’d paint the picture starting with earlier in the morning. We were up very early, because we were headed to pick up a forklift from a neighboring farmer, a Christmas tree farm three-quarters of a mile down the road, and I was going to pick up mandarins in Oroville from a mandarin grower. So, we were up early. Jim was feeding cats, he saw smoke coming.

JIM: I saw the brown sky, and wondered, “Why is it brown?” because that’s not a storm, and as I walked around, I saw the black column coming straight up, shooting just straight up when this big column is going straight up in the air couple hundred feet. Had to be 20 miles away. I go, “Well that’s a fire, that’s too bad. We don’t need to worry about it.” Yeah, initially.

LAURIE: So, we proceeded to go down and pick up equipment, and when we got there, the owners – one was a retired fireman, and the other one was very involved in the North Valley Animal Disaster Assistance Program – had radios and phones in both ears. We proceeded to go down with Joe to pick up the fork lift, and we got down there, and I picked up a piece of an ember and I said, “We got a problem.” In kind of a gruff voice, Joe said said, “Don’t worry about it.”

It was three nanoseconds later, if not two, he said, “Call Ann.” So, Ann went running over to the canyon. Their house is much closer to the canyon than we are. And she came back screaming bloody murder. Called back that there were flames in the canyon already. That was about 7:15 in the morning.We’ve kind of lost track of some of those time factors.

JIM: Yeah, we weren’t keeping track of time.

LAURIE: But, as we left their property, we were headed northbound, and I said, “Pull that forklift over. There’s something burning in our orchard.” I could see a column of light colored smoke. 

JIM: So, we were about a mile down the road. And as I was driving the forklift up, you see this big brown smoke blowing straight across. Once in a while, you see a black wisp of something, like it caught a bush, or something. And you’re going, “This is not good at all.” So, we parked the forklift the first spot I could park off the road, and we got together and came back.

LAURIE: We got up here, and Jim hopped in the orange Jeep – a '46 Jeep – and headed out in the orchard to go see what he could do about the fire out there. We thought it was a normal fire – a spot fire. Get that out and you’ll be fine. I started loading vehicles with the dogs, get the muzzle on them, get them in their crates, get them in the truck. I had put a few things in the vehicles we were going to take, and multiple vehicles we were going to take.

Part of the problem with the evacuation was everybody tried to get out with their vehicles. There are going to be a lot of changes advised in the future for something like this. I’m now on the Butte County Fire Safe Council, and a lot of the discussions are going around about how you’re evacuating multiple thousands of people off of a mountain area, and you’ve got to clear the valley, so there’s some place for them to go. They will do things differently in Chico on Highway 99, on Highway 70, because there was no place for people to go, and that congestion affected how fast people could get off the mountain here. Plus, there was a fire storm in the whole place. We had no idea, being on the eastern edge, that the town was already burning at 8:00 in the morning. We thought we were the fire.

JIM: Yeah. The burn of the fire was coming this way, but it was going up everywhere. So, they have normal evacuation zones, but with this happening, they told everybody to get out now, and that’s why all the roads got jammed up.

LAURIE: People were running into a wall of fire, being turned around, and told to go up the other way. It was chaotic. I was up at the top of Pentz Road, sheltering in place with about 300 people all day. He had managed to get down Skyway. It was not easy for anybody.

JIM: No, no, I tried to meet back up with her. I was on the Skyway, got to Wagstaff Road, and we were going to meet at the CMA church on Clark Road, so I scooted back there, but I’d already driven through flames. Drove through more flames to get over there, and then there’s nobody there, just people sitting around wondering what to do. I proceeded on down to Chico and sat in line and listened to propane tanks blow off in the distance. You’re in this black smoke and your headlights are on because it’s 11 o’clock in the morning and it looks like midnight. Literally. 

LAURIE: It was a fire that had not been seen before in a community like this. It was unknown by almost everybody that the whole place was burning at once, and there was no endeavor whatsoever to try to stop the fire; it was about getting people out. Firefighting was not going on.

I was on a two-lane road, and it was two lanes going out trying to get southbound, and as we were parked there waiting, waiting to move, along comes a fire truck and nobody was getting out of its way. So, I parked my car and jumped out and said, “You go over there and you go over there.” The second time it happened, I said, “Go over there and leave this open. Don’t you dare come back to the center, leave an open place,” and walked the fire trucks out so they could get passage.

We need to work on what our reaction is to events… In the case of a fire, I think the answer is you all pile into one car and get. Forget about the stuff, and that’s a hard thing for us as a people to accept. But we are going to have to change our ways because this is probably not the only place this is going to happen.

Q: How many people died here?

LAURIE: I believe we’re up to 88 now. They’ve identified a couple more people. The day of the event, I was talking with some other people and everybody said, “Oh my God, thousands of people are going to die in this.” We were that convinced that that was what was happening.

JIM: You didn’t know because there were fires everywhere. The wind was blowing up, embers were flying everywhere. Fire trucks could have gone and put one fire out, then gone somewhere else, because another one would pop up right behind where they just put the one out. It was just chaos.

LAURIE: The comments that the wind was very heavy is all true. It was 60-, 70-mile-an-hour winds. I was in an area with about 300 people, and helicopters were coming over. I was feeling water droplets, so the air was cool there, even though it was a hot fire, and people were not dressed for it.

 I was trying to deal with helping people. A little boy has asthma, I have a piece of cloth. I tore it in half, wet it, and gave it to him, and said, “Try to keep it wet so you can breathe.” I never gave up my piece of cloth, I don’t know what happened to it, but I was using it, but I know I took in way too much smoke. I wake up coughing most mornings, and there are going to be implications of that, I’m sure. A lot of people face that.

The topography here impacted what burned and what didn’t. Why there’s a house behind us standing with the trees unburned, I can’t tell you. Obviously, it burned around the trees. You see black going up part of them, but the house didn’t take.

JIM: There was a structure right straight ahead between those two burnt trees, or beyond those, that structure burned, but the other houses were just fine. You see this throughout town, some houses here, some houses there, and who knows.

Q: Tell me about the days after the fire. What has it been like since?

JIM: Well we had gotten separated. So I ended up an Oroville. And then I went to to Gridley looking for her, because there’s a shelter there. And so, I finally got in touch with her and tried to get back to Chico to pick her up, but the highway was closed at that time.

LAURIE: The fire had burned to Highway 99 that night.

JIM: I came up from Gridley and they had closed the road from Oroville to Chico. So I went around there, I didn’t see their closure at all. I got stopped, and highway patrolman says to me, “What are you doing on the road?”

“Going to Chico to pick up my wife.”

“Well you can’t, you gotta go back.”

So I went back to Oroville, called her and then I spent the night with friends of ours in Oroville. Then got in touch with her. So I got to Chico by going around. We got back together.

LAURIE: Highway 99 was still closed at that point, and we had to go out west into the valley to get around the closure. Then we got back together and headed off to Oroville where our friend – the one who has the Mandarin grove – was. They had collected all kinds of people from Paradise in their home. That was Friday. I think we just stood around, sort of numb that day, and the following day we went searching for our dogs.

Our dogs were in the back of a pick-up. As we were preparing to leave our property, one of our neighbors came walking out from the orchard. He had a home on the canyon – a retired physician – and he walked out and he appeared in shock to me. He said, “I just thought I’d come and see if I could help you with your vehicles. My house burned.”

The second he said that, I went running in the house and grabbed the keys. I said, “If you’d like to take this vehicle, that would be fine.” I inquired where his wife was and I didn’t really get a clear answer, but she had already gone with a vehicle apparently. So he was hoofing it. We decided we’d meet again at that CMA church, which is kind of the central meeting ground, and that didn’t happen. He was told to evacuate the vehicle and run for his life. He was sheltered in place in another area.

One of the dogs was released from her crate, the German Shepherd. The Rottweiler-Sharpei cross is more of a bully dog and he did have a muzzle on when he was put in the carrier, so he was grabbed, carrier and all, and thrown in somebody’s truck by a highway patrolman and told to take him to Chico. We got the dogs back on Saturday, so that was very nice.

JIM: We found one at the Humane Society in Chico and then we found the other one at the hospital in Oroville. The lady there worked for a vet and she says, “Oh yeah, we have her.” So we got them both at the same time, same day. We figured they had burned alive somewhere. We didn’t know. We didn’t know.

So we’re sitting there, we have nothing to do. And we were separated for a while. Then Laurie goes, “Well I’m going to go to the store.” And I said, “Well I’m coming with you.” We stayed together the whole time.

Q: Separation anxiety?

JIM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of stress involved. But you just had to sit there and keep your cool while you’re in the black smoke and you hear the propane going off and wait in line with everyone else. I didn’t see anybody panic. Nothing you can do if you panic. You’re sitting in your car and you have nowhere to go.

Q: How long did you stay with friends?

JIM: I spent one night with our friends. Laurie and I got back together and the neighbor there came up and says, “Well I have this fifth wheel. Do you have anybody who can use it?” And that friend of ours says, “Yeah, they can.”

We stayed in his fifth wheel for about six and a half months. On his property. Kindest gentleman in the world. “I don’t want any rent,” he says. “People helped me in the past. I’m going to help you guys. Just help somebody in the future when they need it.” Yeah.

So, of course, that fifth wheel after a while gets a little small. Since about mid-June we’ve lived in the trailer here. We had made arrangements for a fifth wheel about three days after the fire with some acquaintances through Farm Bureau, so we had this older fifth wheel. We can use it for an office, but we got tools in there and other stuff. 

There’s no help to thin the apples or anything, all I was working on. I spent a lot of time working on repairing drip line because even though the orchard didn’t burn, it sort of smoldered and moved along, or a little fire would have caught here and there from the embers. And there’s little sections where the drip line melted. Other sections just fine. So I’m either repairing or replacing drip lines for a while. Just to get the orchard irrigated so the trees would survive.

Q: You lost almost everything in the Camp Fire, but a few stone walls remain.

LAURIE: We did lose 11 buildings. Over there is a stone garage that was built approximately in the mid-30s. We’re not sure of the date. I had found the original drawing that Grandpa Noble did for the building in another location. And, of course, the drawing is gone now, but we were able to save most of the garage mainly because it has cantilevered walls that are – what? – 18, 20, 22 inches at the bottom, and built up. It was decided this had enough strength so it could remain. We’ll put a new roof put on that will be supported by a whole structure system that gets added to it. The weight would not be on the walls.

And there’s the porch from the main house. This was built in 1928. And we have an interesting well. You can’t quite see it but it’s up against this eastern fence. It was a well that was inside the house, and it has been filled now, except for the top portion. We’re going to finish it up and probably make a wishing well out of it so we have some history.

We have the serpentine porch, and the front of it is gorgeous. It has been damaged by the fire. There’s some structural integrity of a few of the pieces that need to be reinforced, but there’s no reason to just tear it up and throw it in the landfill somewhere, so we have it.

The other stuff that’s out here are just the remnants of the past, things that we thought were good yard art to decorate the place eventually… There was a packing shed here – a beautiful packing shed that was built in 1931-32 and then added on to. There was a small cold storage, another store room, and a greenhouse going down, and all of it’s just memories at this point.

We referred to this as the compound. There were a bunch of buildings all centrally located, and what’s going to get replaced? First of all, it’s going to be a cold storage. We, actually, had plans 20 days after the fire for a cold storage. Here we are 10 and a half months later now.

JIM: We didn’t realize how much the devastation was. But it gives you an idea how much it costs to replace something.

LAURIE: And, knowing that is a critical point for this business. The answer this year was to just go ahead and do ‘u-pick’ and that’s how this came about. There’s so much fruit on the trees.

Q: How did you manage the cleanup process?

LAURIE: The cleanup has been absolutely essential. If this property had not been cleaned by somebody else and trucks hauling hundreds of tons of stuff – I don’t know what they took off of here, but there must have been 70 truckloads, if not more. We had large buildings that had heavy cement pours. Concrete was removed, all the steel. We’ve got some collectibles around that need to get to recycling, but we came up looking at this mess and just said...

JIM: Where do you start?

LAURIE: It’s a long process. The other thing that really complicated this was a late-season fire in November. Within I believe it was 10 or 11 days after the fire, it started raining, and pretty much it just didn’t stop. It was one of those kind of winters that was very heavy…We had hail storms five nights in a row after we got in place in the trailer we’re in, and that was June. I’m not looking forward to this winter to the extent that we have a lot of bare soil, and there’s going to be erosion…

There’s a lot to do to get us back anywhere close to where we were before. We’re certainly not looking at building 11 buildings again. We’re going to be able to consolidate the operation and make it more efficient to fit with 2020, or maybe it’s going to be 2021 before it gets back together. That’ll be our 100th year in business. We will have some celebration of it. Who knows what it will be under. It might be a tent still.

Q: What keeps you going?

LAURIE: We were asked that the other day, and in the same breath the interviewer said, “Is it just plain stubbornness?” I said, “Oh, partially.”

JIM: Well, you know we got a lot of people who want us to come back. They’re actually quite happy that we had people up here picking apples. We want you to come back.

LAURIE: I think if we had not had green trees, there could have been a different decision. But from a philosophical standpoint, the trees produced; we have to do something with them. There was no way for us to provide pickers, the equipment, cold storage, etc. So the only answer looking at the trees was, oh, for heaven sakes, let’s just give away the apples, let people come and you pick.

 JIM: There’s plenty of apples for everybody to come and get. There’s just a lot of fruit out there. The trees are just loaded, hanging all over. They can’t even drive a tractor through the road. Being the only apple orchard in town, there is a chance, there is an economic advantage in that. 

LAURIE: What keeps us positive? Just probably the silly dedication of farmers that tomorrow will be another day, and it’ll be better. Next year’s crop will be great. This one’s not good.

JIM: If you own property, you’re not just going to say, “Okay. I own the property, but I'm going to go move up to Idaho.” That’s not going to happen. Might as well stay here and do something with it, and see what you can make of it.


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