Effects of Wildfire on Agriculture

As wildfire season winds down, and we transition from survival mode to cleanup mode, questions arise about the long- and short-term effects of the latest round of wildfires. Not only did many families lose homes, property, and even loved ones, but some lost their livelihoods in the way of agricultural crops.   

According to OSU Agricultural Extension Agent Jacob Powell, there are several ways in which agricultural producers might be affected by wildfire. The first is obvious: when wildfires rage through an agricultural area, it can devastate an entire year’s harvest. “A wildfire can completely remove the crop fairly quickly … it’s a complete loss, the crop is entirely gone,” he said. In orchards, close proximity to a heat source like fire can spoil unpicked fruits, even if trees aren’t consumed by flames, according to Powell.   

Rangeland can also be directly impacted.

When fires go through large swatches of land that is typically used for grazing animal crops like sheep and cattle, the flames consume both grazing land and fences. “Not only is it a loss of forage issue,” Powell said, “but they also have to rebuild their fences before they can get their animals back out there.”   

Wildfire in agricultural areas can also result in a number of indirect issues. Crops, for example, may not be harvestable in the same way they usually are. “Particularly in these recent fires, the hop fields, vineyards, and hemp were all impacted by the smoke and ash that landed on top of them,” Powell said. “The Roma hops in particular – if they get smoked out, that changes their chemical makeup, and so the product is not going to taste the same to the consumer.” 

It isn’t just hops that have this problem, either. “It’s also true with vineyard grapes and hemp that’s being grown for CBD … The problem is the extraction process,” Powell said. “Even if you wash it off, the smoke has still gone into the cells of the plant, so then when you extract it, the typical extraction methods they use with ethanol actually pull that smoke and ash flavor into the final product. So suddenly that’s not marketable to the consumer as they are used to having it.”   

While the wildfires have been hard on many producers, there are a few benefits of fire, one being improved forage quality on rangeland, where grazing animals will be released once the danger has passed. However, Powell said in order for this benefit to really stick, there must be good rains following the fire to wash the nutrients into the soil.  

Luckily, Powell adds, farmers and ranchers are working to help mitigate and prevent damage caused by wildfire. “From a rancher perspective, a lot of folks are doing a better job of doing targeted grazing. They are really trying to use their livestock as a tool to remove vegetation from key areas.” Powell said, in general, farmers are improving in terms of creating defensible space around their farms, and have even helped to save whole towns from wildfire.  

Powell applauded the grass seed farmers in Stayton, Ore. for helping protect structures from the approaching fire. “These farmers quickly went out and started lighting their grass seed fields that they had already harvested … and started doing controlled burns ahead of the main fire,” he said. “They saw the fire coming from the forest and they knew that if they lit their straw fields on fire, they could create a safe black zone that would protect Stayton from the coming wildfire.”   

However, there are still unknowns, both for future fires and for the damage done during this fire season. Powell believes farmers should create emergency action plans to mitigate damage. It’s also unclear how this will impact those who are out in the fields harvesting in the smoky conditions. There may be labor shortages, or even possible chronic illnesses in field workers.   

One thing is for sure: farmers and ranchers are dedicated, and will find ways to continue to prevent and mitigate wildfire damage to their crops and rangelands.    

By Kyra Young