Fire Survivor: David Cooper, Oak Hill Farm

About Oak Hill Farm

For seven decades, Oak Hill Farm has used sustainable agricultural practices on about 25 acres of farmland and has protected hundreds of acres of native oak woodland on the western slope of the Mayacamas Mountains in Glen Ellen, California. The late conservationist Otto Teller and his wife, Anne, purchased the 700-acre ranch in the 1940s. Anne continues to own the property, which is part of Sonoma Land Trust. 

Today, a full-time staff of five grows about 200 varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers and perennial greenery. Products are sold on-site at the Red Barn farm stand, through farmers markets, and directly to Bay Area restaurants. But in October 2017, the farm was shut down as the Tubbs Fire roared through Sonoma County. The wildfire scorched the native oak woodland, leaving burn scars on the mountainside, and destroyed the farm home, the workshop, tractors and more. Farm Manager David Cooper, who escaped the fire with his dog Molly and a carload of personal possessions, recently talked about Oak Hill Farm and the challenges it faces.

A Conversation with David Cooper

Q: How long have you been at Oak Hill Farm?

I’ve been here for 12 years – nine years as the farm manager, three years as the assistant farm manager.

Q: What type of crops do you grow here? 

We grow about 20 acres of diverse crops – flowers, vegetables, fruits, greenery, lots of perennial greens. We grow a lot of brassicas, tomatoes, lettuce, peppers and corn. We also grow flowers, field-cut annual flowers, a bunch of perennial flowers, peonies, lilac, lavender. Fruit trees – there are apples, pears, plums, peaches, persimmons, pomegranates figs. And we have cucumbers and melons. Pretty much if you can grow it here, we do grow it.

Q: The combination of flowers and fruits and vegetables seems like it would lend itself to biodiversity. Is that a deliberate effort here? 

It is. It’s delivered for not only diversity of crops and the environment but also labor-wise so we’re not doing the same thing. If you’re bending over for a while doing something, then you get to stand up and do something else. It just makes the day go a lot faster, too, not picking the same thing all day.

Of course, diversity helps for pest pressure, for crop rotation, for pollination. To have the flowers with the fruit certainly helps to keep pollinators here, to keep beneficial insects around. We don’t have fields larger than two acres. Mostly, we have lots of little one-acre fields spread around with a lot of diversity of wild lands mixed in, too… We don’t have to plant hedgerows and windbreaks because we have we have natural ones.

Q: Obviously, people have cared for this land for a long time. 

Otto Teller bought it before the chemical revolution, when all the chemicals came to agriculture. As far as we know, this land has basically never seen chemicals… There are lots of little creeks on the property and they all feed eventually into Sonoma Creek and then down into the bay. So we try to keep the chemicals, keep the erosion, keep everything out of the out of the streams as much as possible.

You can see our neighbors on either side there, they’ve cut up the hillside as steep as they are allowed to go to plant grapes. We want to protect the hillside, to have wildlife be able to move through a wildlife corridor… There are actually underpasses under Highway 12 for wildlife to use to get over into the into the regional park, the state park, and up over in the Sonoma Mountains.

Q: What’s your favorite part of the job?

I like being outside, interacting with plants. I really love the fact that there’s all the wildlife. I can’t imagine farming on a farm that’s just a farm, just 200 acres of nothing but crops. I enjoy watching the birds, watching the other animals that come down. I mean just listen to it – there are so many birds. It’s a bird’s paradise here.

Q: Tell me about the Tubbs Fire. What was it like here?

Terrifying. We got the call at 2:00 in the morning that there was a fire up the road from us, about five miles up the road in Nuns Canyon. The wind had whipped up. I don’t know what time it started – sometime late afternoon, probably 5 or 6. I went outside before bed around 9 o’clock and got hit with a gust that was coming from a direction that it never blows from, and it just it felt really weird. It was hot. 

My housemate and I went to bed but we didn’t really sleep because it howled all night. And then about 2 in the morning I got a phone call from someone who’d heard from her sister-in-law across the street. She had gone out to check on her bees at about midnight because it was windy – so windy that she want to make sure that her hives didn’t get blown over. Their property sits up a little bit, and she was able to see the glow in the distance. She called her sister-in-law who called me and said ‘You need to get out of the house.’ 

So we got up. It was smoky in the house, and you could see the glow, and the wind was still whipping. No one knew anything. We had no official alerts. We were just going on what she told us, that we needed to leave. We didn’t know how imminent the threat was. 

My housemate and I loaded up what we could, filling our cars in about 15 minutes. Then we each had a car full with just room for the driver, and there was not much more we could do. So we left. We came over to this side of the farm and then lost power shortly after that, which means we basically lost water to the farm. We lose our ability to pump water when we lose power. There was no information still.

Then about 6 in the morning, the sheriff’s deputy came in and said that we needed to leave, that they were they were evacuating the area. At that point, it was a huge glow. The sky was completely lit up on on that side. So we left and went to a friend’s house in town and stayed there, trying to check social media, trying to find any information. Other than the sheriff’s deputy coming through, we had no other information. No one told us. There was nothing. People were calling and texting us trying to find out what was going on, asking if we were okay.

Later, when the wind started dying down, we couldn’t sit there any longer so we came back up here. There was a roadblock at Madrone, which is about half a mile south of the farm. We could see smoke and we didn’t know. But we’re not the type to just sit around and let things happen. So – well, I don’t know if I should say this – we jumped some fences and we came onto the property to get around the roadblock. We went through a neighbor’s vineyard. He let us over, and at that point we moved our equipment that was in these old wooden barns into the irrigated fields – tractors, forklifts, trucks. 

The hillside was on fire. Everything was burning up just up above us. We moved as many of our trucks as we could into the field. I think we loaded up the truck at that point, loaded up our vans. We got cash that was in the office and as many of the files as we could. We loaded up a few more things and we left again. 

As we were leaving, the fire engine was coming in, and we talked to the two guys who were in there. They had been fighting on the other side of the farm, and that’s when we figured out we probably lost our house. We basically thought we lost everything on the north side of the farm. There’s a barn over there, there’s our house, there’s a bunch of outbuildings, a shop. And so we left, figuring we lost everything over there.

We went back into town to our friend’s house. I can’t remember, but maybe we had all the product at that point. At some point, we pulled everything out of our walk-in cooler because we had no power and didn’t know when we’d have power again. We took everything down to to a neighboring farmer who had space in his walk-in.

The next day we came back and we again got on the property. The winds had died down. The fire was still burning the hills, but we drove the property and saw that our house was gone. The barn survived but we lost our workshop. We were able to drive through all of Glen Ellen then because they were a bunch of rumors that all Glen Ellen burnt. We were able to drive and check out everything.

The first few days, access was easier and then access got really difficult. A bunch of out-of-county sheriff’s deputies came in, a bunch of Oakland Police, National Guard. You really couldn’t get in anymore. I left and went to Davis for a few days to a friend’s parents house. A bunch of us went there. I was dealing with stuff – trying to get all my money into the bank, trying to figure out unemployment for my workers because we had payroll that week and, clearly, we weren’t going to pay anyone. I was dealing with all that for a few days, replacing some of the stuff that I knew I’d lost and needed immediately. 

Then I came back, staying over in Napa at my sister’s house. We were still a week away from technically being allowed back on the property. That following week – I guess it was about Tuesday – we were able to get that going through an escort from the county, from the Ag Commissioner. The first thing was trying to get water and power back to the property because it was October, so a bunch of crops were in the field. It was 90, 90-plus degrees and super-dry because of the fire. Humidity was probably 10 percent. We were trying to get power and water back as quickly as we could so if they were flare-ups, we had water. Things were still burning. Everything north of us was still burning. This hillside was still smoldering. 

Q: How long did it take you to get the water system repaired?

I think we worked on the most of that week. We were only allowed in with an escort, and then we were allowed to be here all day. But if we left past the roadblock, we couldn’t get back in. So it’s basically come in, assess, measure, figure out what you need. Go out in the evening, come back the next morning, do work all day There was a lot of a lot of coming and going. 

By the middle of that week – by probably about Wednesday or Thursday – we had a bunch of crops in the field that we really wanted to harvest because we didn’t know when we were going to have water. PG&E was working on power but there was no estimate for for getting power back. So we came in and harvested a couple thousand pounds of products, working with Feed Sonoma. They took all that product for us and were able to distribute it.

I believe we had power back on by Saturday night or Sunday night, which would have been almost two weeks without power. And even then we didn’t have water entirely restored. We were still without our big well, so we were just working on on a small well, about a fifth of our capacity if even that.

Q: After you got the water and power back, what was next?

We were completely closed, aside from those sales to Feed Sonoma trying to move product that we didn’t want to lose. The store was closed for I believe about a month. We were missing farmers markets. Obviously, we weren’t able to go to the city. We probably missed three weeks of deliveries.

Q: How did CAFF help?

CAFF had a huge fundraiser during the fires. We filled out an application, letting them know what we lost. They were very generous in their in their donation to me and some of the other farmers in the area. Evan Wiig worked it out so CAFF was able to use some money to buy product and, through Feed Sonoma, distribute it to people who were preparing meals for first responders or people who were in evacuation zones. That’s where a lot of product went, to chefs and restaurants preparing meals for first responders. CAFF was able to give us income and also feed people and give them quality food.

Everyone was so generous, but it was very disjointed. There was no one place you could go to. A lot of it was word of mouth, so we were spending a lot of time driving all over, trying to find all the resources.

Q: And this went on for how long?

Months and months and months. And you never knew. FEMA originally said that if you lost a house and had no insurance, you were going to get $20,000, None of that ended up happening because FEMA decided it was too much. But you just never knew, so you were always chasing every lead you heard about.

Q: What’s the plan going forward? 

Who knows? It’s not stuff you replace right away. A farm workshop that’s been there since the 1950s or 60s – it’s just full of so many things. Some people would say it’s junk but it’s so valuable to a farm. It’s bolts and pieces and broken-down parts so you can scavenge parts when something else breaks. You just don’t know what you need until you need it. It takes years to to accumulate stuff like that.

The workshop has been rebuilt. We moved it to this side of the farm. It took a year for that… We have a shop now. It’s just spending the time to refill it and figure out what we need.

My life, it was 20 years of stuff, but I’m not going to replace it all. A lot it just takes time to go out and find. Most of my stuff was was antiques or one-offs. It wasn’t just going to a big store and buying it off the shelf. That’s not my style. So there are things you’re just not going to replace right away.

It’s the same thing with the farm. We replaced the one tractor that we really needed and we’re slowly replacing stuff. But insurance is tricky. There’s never enough. You certainly don’t get enough money for what it costs to replace today. So it’s a process to to rebuild. And farms don’t have a lot of money. It’s not something you just recover from in a year or two years. It’s going to take probably a decade at least to really get back. We’ll replace the most important things, and when we have a little bit more money, we’ll replace the next thing.

Q: How did the fire change you personally?

You realize all that stuff is just stuff, first and foremost. It can all be taken away at any at any time. But the biggest thing was how the community came together. You really realize how important community is and how important those relationships are.  My friend’s parents opened their house and opened their hearts to us. The CAFF community came together while the fires were still raging. I had restaurants calling me and saying, ‘What can we do?’ One chef with five restaurants had a different restaurant make lunch for first responders every day. Then he loaded his truck and drove to the nearest fire station. That was that was the whole Bay Area. Everyone wanted to help.

The stuff is just stuff in the end. But community is is irreplaceable. So having all those people come together – it was pretty special, that many people wanted to do whatever they they possibly could to help out.

Q: As you look ahead, talk to me about climate change.

Who knows? There’s all this talk about doing this, and what do you do? How do you prepare for the complete unknown?  That house I was living in had been there since the late 1800s. Fires have burned through before and the house had always made it.

Diversity is obviously one of the huge things we do – building our soils, trying to be drought-tolerant, trying to be heat-tolerant. But we also have to be ready for downpours. We got 12 inches of rain in 40 hours this winter. We’ve never seen that much rain. We’ve never seen that much water on the property. So you just try to do the things that have the ground covered, have cover crops planted, and have your ditches and creeks clear. 

It’s the same thing for fire season. You take red flag warnings seriously. You try to do the stuff that they tell you to do, but even when we talked to the firefighters, they said, ‘All of our training, we weren’t prepared for a fire like that.’ They prepare for the most extreme conditions, and then they see something that’s beyond what they’ve ever seen. You try to be ready, to handle what what comes at you, but farming is hard enough without all of that.  I’d be much more afraid if I were a grape grower and had just that one crop that I have to bring to production every year. If we lose one crop then usually something else is doing well…You just try to be resilient and diversity is the most resilience you can have.

Q: We talked about tough times and the fire. Tell me your favorite good story about the farm. 

Most days are good. I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t enjoy the work on a day-to-day basis. I think it’s a good group of people to work with. It’s beautiful land. The owners are really supportive of the workers… The best part is walking the fields at night, going out in the evening and harvesting what you want for dinner, harvesting flowers for your table or going somewhere and showing up with a plate of food that you grew or having having people out for potlucks. Other farmers come out and see the land and see what we’re doing. All that just keeps us going. So the land, that beauty. Days like today when the sun is shining and it’s blue and it’s not super hot. Things are growing. Fields are filling up.

— May 11, 2019

Interview & photos by Joan Cusick