San Diego supervisors OK passes to allow farmer, rancher access during natural disasters
County supervisors Tuesday unanimously approved a program that will allow farmers and ranchers access to their land during a wildfire or other type of emergency or natural disaster.
As proposed by Supervisors Joel Anderson and Jim Desmond, the agricultural passes, or "Ag Pass," will give vetted ranchers and farmers limited access to their property, when deemed safe, to care for livestock or crops during emergencies.
Ag Pass cards will identify farmers and ranchers to firefighters, law enforcement agencies — including the California Highway Patrol and county sheriff's deputies — and other emergency personnel.
In a statement, Anderson said the cards "will help to eliminate the dilemma many farmers and ranchers must face during natural disasters: to leave behind their animals -- putting their livestock and equine at risk, or to ignore evacuation orders -- putting their own lives at risk."
Desmond said that in San Diego County, agriculture provides more than 12,000 jobs and has an economic impact of just under $2 billion.
"I have heard many stories during emergencies where farmers or ranchers decided to remain on their property to protect their assets because they feared they would not be let back in to care for crops or animals," Desmond said in a statement.
"Having this Ag Pass available to our farmers will allow for a better collaboration with firefighters, and will ultimately make our community safer."
Anderson said a pass program is crucial in a region known for devastating wildfires.
"This measure gives ranchers an opportunity for timely access to their ranches during what is an incredibly stressful, and often life-or-death situation," he said. "I am thankful for county staff's hard work in creating the framework for this program and hope to see it save many lives."
According to Desmond and Anderson, the Ag Pass program will begin accepting applications for commercial cattle and equine operations in September. It will include other commercial livestock and agricultural operations in fiscal year 2023-24.
To develop the program, the county worked with various governmental or educational agencies and industry groups, including the San Diego County Farm Bureau, Cattleman's Association, county Fire Protection District, University of California Cooperative Extension and U.S. Forest Service.
During Tuesday's meeting, Desmond said the Ag Pass "is a good move forward," and similar programs have proven successful in other counties.
"We want everybody to be safe," Desmond said, adding the pass could encourage people to evacuate sooner.
Tony Mecham, San Diego fire chief for Cal Fire, reminded everyone with animals to have an evacuation plan.