Caretaker Returns to Solano County Fire-Ravaged Farm: 'Like a War Zone'

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Vacaville farm caretaker Tom Walter surveys the damage of La Ferme Soleil, an olive farm that was scorched by the LNU Lightning Complex fire. (Peter Arcuni/KQED)

As the caretaker and resident of an organic olive farm in Vacaville, Tom Walter is no stranger to fire season. But as flames approached the property off Pleasants Valley Road sometime after midnight Wednesday, he felt this time was different.

“I've never seen a fire move so quickly and so aggressively towards everything in its path,” Walter said.

The main ranch house at La Ferme Soleil was leveled when the LNU Lightning Complex fire tore through Pleasants Valley Road in Vacaville in the early morning hours of Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. (Peter Arcuni/KQED)

The Hennessey Fire, part of the 350,000-acre-plus LNU Lightning Complex fire, was racing toward the north end of his ranch, while another blaze was approaching from the west.

“I got everybody off the property, tried to get as much livestock,” Walter said, “Then I hung in there as long as I could and evacuated by about 1:30 in the morning.”

A day later, with scattered embers still burning, Walter returned to survey the damage. Somehow, he says, the olive trees, which the farm harvests to produce organic olive oil under the label La Ferme Soleil, were unscathed. But the fire had destroyed much of the rest of the farm.

“The whole property, it looks like war, a war zone. That’s the only way to explain it," Walter said, “I can't put the words together. My heart is hurting. My mind is numb.”

The 48-foot travel trailer Walter lived in was reduced to a heap of twisted, blackened metal, or “junk," as he described it.

“Everything I had was in here. Everything,” he said.

The main ranch house, which had just been sold to new owners, was also leveled. A thick film of black soot covered the backyard pool.

The animal pen at La Ferme Soleil in Vacaville, along with sheep and goat, was lost to the LNU Lightning Complex fire. (Peter Arcuni/KQED)

“The only thing standing was our guest house,” Walter said, “It's a miracle because I have a place to stay, still.

La Ferme Soleil also lost sheep and goat to the fire, and Walter is still searching for two lost horses.

He says many farmers in the area are now scrambling to get back to their land to see what’s left of their homes and to look out for any animals left behind.

On Thursday, police had blocked off access to Pleasants Valley Road, but were letting some cars through.

Walter spent Thursday morning driving around, with his labrador retriever in tow, to check on properties for neighbors.

“A lot of people still can't come out here,” he said. “My biggest thing is trying to give good news to this devastation, and it's hard right now.

“When they're asking me about their property or their homes, I either have good news or bad news. And the majority of it's bad news.”