Edible Monterey Bay

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CODE RED

The sky turned dark as fire approached Swanton Berry Farm. Fortunately the farm was spared, but many workers lost their homes or were displaced by the blaze. Photo by Dagmar Dolatschko.

Already devastated by the pandemic, farmers and chefs step up to help in fires


As we were going to press, fire crews were still working to fully extinguish four massive wildfires that broke out when a magnificent lightning storm rolled through the Monterey Bay area on Aug. 15.

The lightning storm was a sight to remember and we were still sharing photos and delighting in it two days later when we began to smell the smoke, towering clouds suddenly blocked the sun, everything took on an orange hue and lightning-sparked flames roared down from the ridgetops.

In numbers, the River Fire in south Salinas burned 48,088 acres and destroyed 30 structures, the Carmel Fire in the Cachagua hills above Carmel Valley burned 6,905 acres and left 73 buildings in ashes and the Dolan fire south of Big Sur, which turned out to be arson, burned through 93,554 acres of rough terrain as of press time.

In Santa Cruz County, the 85,746-acre CZU Lightning Complex Fire raged through the mountains, destroying outlying parts of Boulder Creek and Bonny Doon, and coming dangerously close to UC Santa Cruz and Davenport. Big Basin State Park burned in the firestorm, one man lost his life, and 1,490 homes and other buildings were destroyed— more than in the landmark Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

Those first few days it seemed everyone was on the move, fleeing the out of control flames. An unending stream of panicked phone calls and texts ensued. “Where are you?” “Are you okay?” “Is your house okay?” “How’s the smoke where you are?”

Mandatory evacuation zones grew daily. Even though the air was toxic and ash rained down like snow, my husband and I were among the lucky ones who got to stay in our own home, while most of our contributors and more than 85,000 residents had to leave theirs.

It’s hard to understand where the strength comes from, but as people started to evacuate, local chefs, farmers and restaurateurs—already brought to their knees by the COVID-19 pandemic—rushed in to offer food and comfort.

“Everyone wants to help,” said Katy Oursler, co-owner of Mutari Chocolate in Santa Cruz, which became a hub for donations of produce from markets and farms.

Organic fruits and vegetables were loaded up at Wild Roots markets in one evacuation zone and delivered to be made into meals for evacuees and firefighters, with the help of staff from World Central Kitchen—the relief organization founded by chef-humanitarian José Andrés. Meantime, a truck from Live Earth Farm pulled up with veggies that had been destined for farmers’ markets, suddenly canceled due to the emergency.

“One really important thing to me is the opportunity to use produce that would otherwise be wasted due to the fire,” said Oursler.

At least 15 local chefs took part in preparing meals for WCK to distribute, working with produce donated by a dozen local farms, including strawberries from Swanton Berry Farm on the edge of the fires.

“Seeing local chefs and farmers reconnecting when picking up produce has been beautiful to witness and be part of,” she added. “Being able to connect with one another safely at the Mutari hub, and talk through the past months’ trials and tribulations has provided comfort and support to many of us this week.”

Similar scenes took place in Carmel Valley, where school board member Tess Arthur and chef Todd Fisher, of the Folktale Wine Group, quickly set up to feed early evacuees—moving their operation west as the fires grew closer.

Julia’s Vegetarian Restaurant pivoted its High Road Kitchen program from feeding those struggling from the pandemic to providing nourishment for evacuees. And while displaced from her own home in the Cachagua hills, EMB contributor Jordan Champagne, of Happy Girl Kitchen, organized a free “Love Feast” to feed firefighters and displaced residents.

It’s not possible to acknowledge all the local heroes who contributed to fire relief and many of the efforts are still ongoing. But we can say without hesitation that when it comes to assisting those in need, our Monterey Bay food community is the best!

To make a donation to some of the local farms that suffered damage in the fires, please visit: https://www.forumverde.com/save-the-farms

  1. 1440 Multiversity in Scotts Valley partnered with Operation BBQ Relief—a nationwide nonprofit disaster relief organization—to provide meals for displaced residents and first responders.
  2. Volunteers from World Central Kitchen processed donations of fresh produce in the kitchen at Mutari Chocolate in Santa Cruz.
  3. A dozen craft breweries banded together to sell a benefit beer called Santa Cruz Strong—a hoppy blonde ale brewed at Discretion Brewing in Soquel. All proceeds are being donated to the Santa Cruz Community Foundation Fire Response Fund.
  4. Brenda Deckman and Tabitha Stroup of Terroir in a Jar were among the first to feed evacuees at the county fairgrounds, then pivoted quickly to bottling and canning with local vegetables too damaged by smoke or heat for retail. Photo by Penny Ellis.
  5. Chef Kendra Baker of Penny Ice Creamery, The Picnic Basket and Snap Taco sending out another batch of meals for World Central Kitchen. Photo by Crystal Birns.
  6. Even the surfer statue showed appreciation for the firefighters.
  7. Jordan Champagne of Happy Girl Kitchen provided meals for a traveling team of firefighters from San Bernardino. Photo by Michelle Magdalena.
  8. Patrice Boyle and the crew at Soif turned the dining room into an assembly area for meals for World Central Kitchen. Photo by Crystal Birns.
  9. Maite Idoia, a volunteer for World Central Kitchen, delivered warm meals to Cal Fire crews stationed in Bonny Doon. Photo by West Cliff Creative.
  10. Tatiana Glass of Avanti Restaurant, Andrea Mollenauer of the Food Lounge and Katy Oursler of Mutari Chocolate worked tirelessly to help World Central Kitchen with its relief efforts. Photo by Crystal Birns.
  11. Tess Arthur and chef Todd Fisher fed evacuees in Carmel Valley. Photo by Patrick Tregenza.
  12. Cooking down donated tomatoes helped achieve zero waste. Photo by Katy Oursler.

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