Just after dawn Saturday, a computerized alarm on the nightstand next to the bed of Otto and Jeanne Klittich told them that the temperature had dropped to 23 degrees in the orange grove outside their Fillmore home.
It was a low point for the Klittiches in a three-day battle to protect their 32 acres of citrus and nursery plants against record cold that coated the plants with frost.
As dreaded as the unexpected phone call in the middle of the night, the electronic bedside device had first sounded before dawn Thursday, when temperatures slipped below 32 in the eastern Ventura County community. It signaled the start of their battle with nature that may not end until Monday--and a vigil that may not end until summer.
A National Weather Service freeze warning for agricultural areas in Southern California was expected to continue at least through Monday morning, officials said.
To combat the chill, growers such as the Klittiches took to their fields, using a wide-ranging and expensive arsenal of water, anti-frost chemicals, heaters and wind makers.
The Ventura County growers estimate that they have already spent as much as $1 million to protect their citrus and avocado crops. But they say they won't know exactly how well their efforts worked until the spring or summer.
"Sometimes oranges heal and sometimes they don't. The waiting to find out--that's always a bad time," Otto Klittich said Saturday after inspecting the grove he and his family have worked for 10 years. When he stuck a temperature probe in an orange plucked from a tree, he got a reading of 28 degrees. It was not a good sign.
"It is hard not to get depressed," his wife said. "We will be able to make some estimates of damage once it warms up, but what is so awful is that we won't know for sure until the crop is picked in August."
Damage from the freeze was expected to be high, said Terry Schaeffer, an agricultural meteorologist with the weather service in Santa Paula. Schaeffer spent much of Saturday visiting growers, surveying damage and collecting temperature readings. The lowest reading he found was 22 degrees along Santa Rosa Road near Camarillo.
"It is becoming obvious we sustained some significant damage," Schaeffer said. "We are probably talking millions of dollars in damages. I'd be surprised if it wasn't $10 million.
"It's going to be a freeze the growers will remember for generations."
Among the area's larger growers, Limoneira Associates used two helicopters, wind machines and grove heaters to keep warm air circulating over its 3,000 acres of citrus.
"We've had to protect our citrus crops pretty extensively," said Al Guilin, executive vice president of the Santa Paula grower. "Still, there is some damage evident right now. It is difficult to know how extensive it is until you actually cut the fruit at harvest time."
Even if the protective measures save the crops, Guilin said, the farmers can end up losing money because the methods are so expensive.
"The cost of labor, of fuel, of flying a helicopter adds up," he said. "In some cases, it will be the difference between whether a grower makes money or not this coming year."