Michael Kriletich and other volunteers with CalaverasGROWN spread straw on scorched hills for erosion control. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Drought, fire, and now healing in a California farm community

After four years of drought, Calaveras County faced a historic fire and then devastating soil erosion once rains came. Farmers are now fighting to recover.

Many Californians may barely remember the Butte Fire, which hit the Gold Country foothills last September. But people in Calaveras County do.

“I watched this all happen from my deck,” says farmer and beekeeper Sean Kriletich, who put out spot fires on his land and prepared for evacuation. “I didn’t sleep for 10 days. It was an extremely stressful situation, and I didn’t even lose anything.”

He stands on that deck now, looking out over forests and vineyards and grazing land, remembering 200-foot-tall flames and plumes of smoke filling this vista.

Hang out with Kriletich for a couple days and you’re likely to leave both exhausted and inspired. His concern for the people and land around him is relentless. Case in point, his reaction the first time he drove through the burn zone after the fire.

“I was seriously throwing up, that’s how intense it was,” he says. “To go from being so beautiful, so verdant, a place I’ve known my whole life, to see that destroyed and know it’s not coming back in my lifetime, it’s disgusting. And it hurts. It hurts a lot.”

Kriletich and his mom and dad and a bunch of neighbors work with CalaverasGROWN, a group that promotes the county’s agriculture from its cattle ranchers, vintners, honey and olive makers, and others. They convened a meeting before the fire was even out. They knew they had to do something, but couldn’t build new houses.

“We’re agriculturalists,” Kriletich says. “We know about caring for the plants, we know about caring for soils, we know about caring for animals. OK. So what should our role in this be?”

They found their answer in bales of straw.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends spreading straw mulch on burned land because it contains seeds, retains moisture and lowers soil temperature. It should green up these hills and help keep topsoil in place.

So on a recent day, 15 volunteers drove a caravan of pickup trucks filled with 200 bales of straw to a devastated property. They unloaded, then dragged bales down hillsides to spread the straw by hand in between charred manzanita trees.

Sean Kriletich’s dad, Michael, described the land. “It’s completely black, just scoured by the fire. This property, it’s fried.”

Usually there’s a natural seed bank, which lives in the soil and then germinates. But the dry conditions created by four years of drought, the worst in recent history, meant the Butte Fire burned so fast and so hot it sterilized the soil.

Scorched earth is obviously bad news for Calaveras cattle ranchers, who lost grazing land. For beekeepers like Sean Kriletich, “This is a complete nightmare.”

He lost dozens of hives, and estimates that tens of thousands were displaced. Then there’s the pollen bees won’t get from burned oak trees and wildflowers that will never grow.

“The grocery store for the bees is closed,” he says. “The grocery store got burned down.”

Even more serious? Fire coupled with Calaveras’ red clay soil.

Volunteers with CalaverasGROWN spread straw on scorched hills for erosion control.
Volunteers with CalaverasGROWN spread straw on scorched hills for erosion control. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

“When you get intense fire over top of it, we get a glazed layer in the soil,” Kriletich says. “This literally was a kiln. Just like your coffee mug in the morning doesn’t let all that coffee out of the mug, that glaze isn’t letting water from the surface down into the aquifer, into the water table.”

So when winter rains came, water didn’t permeate the soil. It rushed off that glazed surface, taking black ash and red clay with it. The Calaveras and Mokelumne rivers that provide drinking water and an important source of irrigation looked like chocolate milk, roiling with dirty black and red water. It got so bad the local water treatment plant was shut down overnight, giving its overworked filters a break.

Kriletich says preventing erosion and recharging the aquifer is essential, “Not only for our local wells but for the entire foodshed of California. This is the water for San Joaquin County,” a key agricultural producer in the state, “and this is also the water that eventually flows out the Golden Gate.”

Sean Kriletich, farmer and beekeeper, estimates tens of thousands of hives were displaced by the Butte Fire.
Sean Kriletich, farmer and beekeeper, estimates tens of thousands of hives were displaced by the Butte Fire. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

In fact, CalaverasGROWN has received donations from the City of Stockton and its water district, plus Bay Area individuals. Those people and organizations know: water impacted in Calaveras comes downstream. Most donations go right to buying straw.

Why is a group of volunteers doing this erosion control work? Almost three-quarters of the more than 70,000 acres of land that burned here is privately owned, and that limits what government agencies can do, according to Sharon Torrance from Butte Fire Recovery. “There are state and federal funds to put the fire out, but once the emergency is over,” she says, the funds are really limited for range and forest management.

The USDA also has some funding available for eligible agricultural producers for long-term restoration work on private land. Trees that threaten county or state roads are removed by the County Public Works Department, and they are applying for grants to fund tree removal, water treatment and communications because, Torrence says, “The work of recovery is as big, if not bigger, than the fire.”

Erosion made the North Fork of the Calaveras River look like chocolate milk, after winter storms sent black ash and red clay into the waterway.
Erosion made the North Fork of the Calaveras River look like chocolate milk, after winter storms sent black ash and red clay into the waterway. (Gordon Long/KQED)

Michael Kriletich says CalaverasGROWN goes where invited, no paperwork required. “That’s why we could get started right away. While the fire was still smoldering we were out here doing this. We said, ‘We’re gonna take the worst first.’”

He believes the reason more than 60 people have volunteered with CalaverasGROWN to spread straw — and also fell hazard trees and reinstate wells — is simple.

“It’s our community” he says, choking up. “People’s lives have been ruined, we’re just helping. We’re worried about soil erosion, more trauma and it could burn again. There’s 71,000 acres that need to be cleaned up. That’ll never happen, but it’s what we need to do.”

Goat rancher Sandi Young knows that all too well. “It’s called the burn scar area for a reason. It is a scar. It’s a wound that will take a very long time to heal.”

She and her husband lost 300 acres in the Mountain Ranch area, but her house and surrounding pasture land were spared. She attributes that to her herd of 50 goats, which had eaten the grasses down, giving the fire no fuel.

She knows she’s more fortunate than many. Still, Young says, “You lose your way of life, you lose your business.” She has only a handful of her herd here now. “My goats are thousands of miles away right now until we can repair and rebuild.”

Goat rancher Sandi Young stands in front of her pastures — she believes they were saved by her herd of goats mowing them — and blackened hills, among the 300 acres she lost in the Butte Fire. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)
Goat rancher Sandi Young stands in front of her pastures — she believes they were saved by her herd of goats mowing them — and blackened hills, among the 300 acres she lost in the Butte Fire. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

With the first rains, her neighbor’s hillside above washed out the road to her house, tumbling into the creek below. That’s when Young called on Sean Kriletich and CalaverasGROWN.

“He came with four guys with chainsaws and we built dams with the dead trees,” to slow debris rushing down the hill. They helped her reseed blackened hillsides which are now turning green, and set priorities for next steps.

Back at the work party, Sean Kriletich says people are still in shock. “We feel that it’s really important for people to have the tools they need in order to move forward,” to improve their land and emotional health.

“Often times that’s just as simple as taking the black landscape and turning it yellow with straw, to add some color to a very dark situation,” Kriletich says.

After all, it’s the familiar golden color of California.

Story was originally produced in partnership with KQED’s The California Report. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org.