Expanded ‘ag pass’ program to allow access to 4,000 ranches, farms during wildfires

Large crane helicopters drop water on the Valley fire.
Large crane helicopters drop water on the wildfire that came dangerously close to a home in Alpine on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

An expansion of the county’s ag pass program will allow 4,000 commercial ranchers and farmers in unincorporated areas to return to their property during wildfires or other emergencies to care for their livestock and crops.

The Board of Supervisors approved an earlier phase of the program in August, providing emergency access to horse and cattle ranchers. On Tuesday, April 4, they unanimously approved an expansion extending that to all commercial agricultural businesses.

“We appreciate the support you have given the agricultural community in being able to access their land,” San Diego Farm Bureau President Mary Matava said. “We’re really pleased with the program and happy you are expanding the program to crop production as well.”

Severe wildfires have endangered animals, crops and orchards, have forced owners to leave their farms unattended during the emergencies and have made some reluctant to evacuate for fear they could not return, officials said.

The pass lets them return after the immediate phase of an evacuation order is over and a “soft closure” is announced, San Diego County Fire Chief Tony Mecham said.

To qualify, farmers must provide documentation of their business and attend a four-hour fire safety training that covers such topics as fire behavior and weather, avoiding entrapment and incident command. They must also recertify for the pass each year, officials said.

The pass doesn’t guarantee access to properties in evacuation zones but authorizes fire officials to open them if fire or emergency conditions permit. Owners or managers can return during daylight hours only to feed, water, shelter or provide veterinary care to their animals, or to work on farm equipment.

So far, 28 companies participated in the initial phase, and the county issued 76 identification cards to managers with those businesses. The program will now be open to 1,500 livestock ranches and 2,500 irrigated farms, the board letter stated.

Another 1,200 agricultural businesses operate within the county’s cities. Those businesses can also obtain ag passes through the county if the city where they are located approves a similar program.