Late afternoon on Wednesday, Oct. 11, a huge plume of black smoke arose from east of Winters. It was a warehouse at Dixon Ridge Farms, an organic walnut growing and processing farm operation in Solano County, south of Putah Creek.
Owner Russ Lester provided a detailed explanation of what happened.
“It was about 5 p.m. on Wednesday. An employee had been using an articulated boom lift to wash off the building because walnut meal that gets in the air tends to coat everything with a fine dust. He was stopping for the day and was putting the boom away, and parked it inside the warehouse building where it and a lot of other ag equipment is stored when not in use.
“As he walked away, the vehicle apparently caught on fire. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and tried to put it out. Possibly there was some combustible material nearby — like a bin with some used tree stakes inside — that caught on fire. Very quickly. the interior insulation liners of the building caught and the fire spread very rapidly. It was a totally random accidental fire. The employee was, thankfully, able to escape without injury.
“Within 15 minutes, the whole building was on fire.
“There were plastic bins filled with walnut shells, a by-product of our ag processing, that we store for use in the biomass gasifier to produce energy. They caught fire. Eventually it spread to about 40 tons of walnuts that were drying.
“There is very little left.”
Lester said what is most problematic at the moment is that some of the equipment used for harvesting is gone. Their dryers and dryer trailers burned up. They are in the middle of fall harvest.
They have two shakers for the harvest. The new one was in the field, but the backup burned up. So did their backup sweeper.
They have a brand new backhoe that was purchased at Christmas time last year. Both it and the backup backhoe were incinerated.
“I really will need to replace this backhoe rapidly because we have nothing to work with for our ongoing construction and ag work,” said Lester, expressing appreciation for emergency responders.
“I was totally in awe, amazed, pleased to see the response from local firefighters. We had units from Dixon, Winters, Fairfield, Travis, Woodland, Davis and UC Davis. It was amazing. No other buildings or orchard trees caught on fire.”
Dixon Fire Department was the first on the scene. They reported that 13 units responded to the fire: two engines from Dixon and two from Vacaville; two water tenders from Vacaville and one from Dixon; an additional water tender each from Winters, Travis and UCDavis. Vacaville sent one battalion commander and Dixon had two on site.
Lester says the main thing is that no employees got hurt.
“There is a tragic loss of things, but nobody was injured.”
He is deeply grateful to fellow farmers and neighbors, and named a few:
Malcolm Bond brought over a water tank. Lester explained that because of the fire, there was no electricity in the warehouse building, so there was no pump, so there was no nearby water. Robbie Warren turned on water in the adjacent Collado orchard to prevent spreading of the fire and allowed the fire department to refill water tanks. Craig McNamara brought over dinner for everyone. Lester was also able to tie into McNamara’s water lines. Loren Warren, Jr., and the Borchards are loaning dryers and trailers for the harvest.
The fire started on Wednesday and 48 hours later, was still burning. The piles of walnut shells used for biomass conversion smolder and then will suddenly burst into flame. It is safer to let them burn than to try to put them out, said Lester.
“The Dixon fire department was here until midnight on Wednesday. Summer Lester, Will Rolewicz and I stayed up all night to babysit the fire. Other employees monitored it Thursday. Thursday night, I went to bed after 2 a.m. We needed to make sure it didn’t flare up and spread.”
He was relieved that the firefighters contained the fire and kept it from spreading to the other buildings. Walnuts have a lot of oil and burn hot, produce steam and then explode with the possibility of spreading fire with embers.
“Our job now is to move on. We have insurance, even though it probably will not cover everything. I am fortunate to have fantastic employees who stayed late, helping to move equipment, trailers and bins. The fire consumed decades of their hard work as much as mine. I am just grateful it wasn’t worse than it was. And no one was hurt. That is the most important thing.”