Wildfires and high winds in California, Oregon and Washington have damaged dozens of properties and research facilities in recent weeks, dismaying researchers who have already faced delays in agricultural research due to COVID-19.
But experts say the disruptions have also created opportunities that may not have existed in “normal” times.
“We’ve had a slew of impacts on research from COVID-19 and the fires,” said Kathleen Wong, spokeswoman for the University of California Natural Reserve System.
One notable college property hit by wildfire was Cal Poly’s Swanton Pacific Ranch in Santa Cruz County, Calif. Haley Marconett, spokeswoman for the ranch, said the research team was “devastated” after the CZU Lightning Complex Fire destroyed the property.
The 3,200-acre working ranch is known for organic crop production, grass-fed beef and forestry.
The property, Marconett said, is still littered with downed power lines, sink holes and spot fires. Seven of the ranch’s nine facilities, along with two classrooms, burned to the ground.
In the UC Natural Reserve System, Wong said recent wildfires burned nine reserves, consuming buildings, equipment and land. The fire damage, Wong said, will disrupt research in ecology, natural sciences and water studies, some of which indirectly impact agriculture.
Wong said researchers are innovating despite destruction.
“(Research) is marching on. People are still finding ways to do things safely and creatively. It’s just not as easy now,” she said.
Even before wildfires, many universities felt disruptions because of the pandemic.
Researchers say the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, for example, has faced safety protocol challenges and budget cuts due to COVID-19.
At UC-Davis, Alison Van Eenennaam, a professor of animal genomics, said COVID-19’s lockdown on meat plants made it difficult to collect animal organs, including ovaries containing developing zygotes, for experimentation.
“Of all the things you haven’t thought about that COVID disrupted, who could’ve predicted researchers would have trouble getting animal organs?” she said.
Agricultural researchers in Washington state have also faced challenges.
Vicki McCracken, Washington State University Extension associate dean and director, said although the university lost a boiler room to destructive winds, most facilities were untouched.
The greater loss, said McCracken, is to Washington state farms, some of which were university research partners. One major canola farm that was working with WSU burned in its entirety.
Despite losses, McCracken said researchers have unique opportunities to study fire impacts.
Heidi Happonen, spokeswoman for the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University, said researchers have similarly faced disruptions in 2020 but are making the best of circumstances. Researchers, she said, are studying toxins and pollutants, smoke’s impact on wine grapes, the effects of soot and ash on livestock and more.
“You can look at it as disruptions,” she said. “Or you can look at the things we’ve been able to do because of the challenges.”