Apple, pear pickers cope with wildfire smoke

Cascade Locks, Ore., nestled in tall fir trees alongside the Columbia River, is inundated by smoke from the nearby Eagle Creek wildfire Wednesday. Smoke from wildfires in the Cascade Mountains has plagued apple and pear pickers in the Wenatchee Valley and elsewhere in Northcentral Washington for many days.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — It’s almost getting to be an annual occurrence — wildfire smoke hampering harvest of apples and pears, particularly in northcentral Washington.

Smoke was bad in Wenatchee for more than a week in early August and then again in recent weeks causing some pickers to don face masks, causing some shorter work days but perhaps helping fruit more than hurting it.

“The primary effect (on fruit) has been cooling down temperatures and tending to delay maturity,” said Tianna Dupont, Washington State University Extension tree fruit specialist in Wenatchee. It maybe slowing harvest a little, she said.

She and her predecessor, Tim Smith, both said overall effects of smoke on tree fruit is minimal.

“If anything it’s probably a positive, in the real hot, in reducing fruit sunburn,” Smith said.

Smoke was far worse in 2012 and there was concern at ethylene oxide in smoke might cause fruit to ripen too fast, but that didn’t happen, he said.

Smoke has been coming from the 30,720-acre Jolly Mountain Fire about 25 miles west of Wenatchee and in Chelan from the 7,336-acre Uno Fire up Lake Chelan from Manson. Clear skies were forecast for Wenatchee and Chelan, starting Sept. 14.

Despite the smoke this year, growers are really happy with the weather, Smith said. Nights are beginning to cool down more which is needed for color and sugar development, he said.

“In the longrun, it’s helping keep temperatures down which is good because apples were cooking on the trees,” Doug England, manager of Manson Fruit Cooperative, said of the smoke. Temperatures were too hot, he said.

Smoke has been difficult on workers, said Harold Schell, director of field services at Chelan Fruit Cooperative in Chelan.

“A lot of people were wearing masks and doing what they could to get by because fruit still has to be harvested. Without a doubt work days were shortened and I assume some skipped, too,” Schell said.

Greg Rains, horticulturist at Blue Star Growers in Cashmere, said not many pickers have been wearing masks in that area and that the smoke is no where near as bad as in 2012.

“It was just soup up here in 2012. You couldn’t see 200 yards away. We’ve only had a couple days like that this year,” he said. “It gives us the benefit of extending harvest a little bit and helps prevent sunburn.”

Nemis Robles, a pear picker at Stone House Orchard near Cashmere, said smoke has been bad and some work days were shortened because of it.

Pablo Avila, orchard manager at Independent Warehouse in Dryden, said smoke has been bad at times but that workers were not complaining and not wearing masks.

Mario Diaz, manager of Mountain View Orchard, East Wenatchee, said pickers asked and he gave them masks for a couple of days but that he didn’t have to reduce hours.

Recommended for you