Two weeks ago, strawberry grower Jose Silva installed a frost alarm in his Irvine home. He set it to buzz at 37 degrees to warn him to turn on sprinklers and wind machines to protect the tender blooms, which blacken and die at 32 degrees.
Since Friday, his alarm has buzzed every evening at 8:30 p.m. and Silva--like many other county growers--has worked 12- to 14-hour nights to save his crops from harm.
"I'm beginning not to like it anymore," said Silva, who supervises 1,400 acres on Treasure Farms. "What I got for Christmas was three nights of freezing temperatures."
From last Wednesday until Sunday night, lows ranged from the mid-20s to the low 30s throughout Orange County, said Walt Bartlett, meteorologist with the National Weather Service, who provides the frost report for Orange County growers. This recent chill is the longest and coldest in the county in the past 10 years, he said.
County growers said it was too early to ascertain the full extent of crop damage, but they and their counterparts elsewhere in the state and region reported significant damage.
Crops suffering the most are strawberries, whose blooms can be burned at 32 degrees, followed by avocados, which withstand temperatures to 31 or 30, and oranges which survive down to 28 degrees without damage, Bartlett said.
"Christmas morning it was 24 degrees in Huntington Beach," said Larry Simmons, president of State Wide Sales, growers, shippers and distributors for winter crops of strawberries, cauliflower and celery. "We had ice in our celery in Santa Ana and Oxnard."
Orange County growers were looking forward to a night of above-freezing temperatures provided by cloud cover and rain predicted by meteorologists.
Even chillier air will move in when the storm leaves, said Pat Cooper, meteorologist for WeatherData, which provides forecasts for The Times. Highs today will reach the low to mid 50s today then drop into the 30s tonight, she said. Wednesday highs will reach only into the upper 40s to low 50s with a chance of light showers, she said.
The National Weather Service said low temperatures could drop into the upper 20s Wednesday and Thursday.
John Ellis, deputy agricultural commissioner for Orange County, said he did not believe many growers were hurt drastically by the frost. "They knew it was coming and were prepared for it."
However, Ken Oda, owner of Oda Nurseries in San Juan Capistrano, where National Weather Service reports indicated that temperatures dropped to 27 on Monday morning, said, "By the time we analyze this, there's probably not a nurseryman or strawberry farmer in the three Southern California counties without some significant monetary loss."
The county's major agricultural products are nursery stock followed by strawberries, Ellis said.
"For two years in a row we've been cursed with unseasonably cold weather," said Oda, who lost several tropical and semitropical plants in the freeze. "We don't count on getting those temperatures over successive nights. We don't prepare.
"There's nothing you can do in the short term. Greenhouses are prohibitive. That's the reason we're here in Southern California, so we don't have to grow our product in greenhouses like our competitors in other states."
Carl Lindgren, manager of farming with the Irvine Co. agricultural division, said: "We did sustain some damage on the avocados. We don't know how much." It is still too early to tell how the cold hurt the citrus orchards in the Irvine area where temperatures dipped to 27 degrees, he said.
Where Silva was able to run sprinklers and wind machines--which can raise the temperature four degrees, only 3% to 5% of his fruit was damaged, and only 8% to 10% of the new blooms. In unprotected areas, he said, he lost 60% of the fruit and 80% of the blooms.
"There's a likelihood of a significant loss of avocados and lemons," said Chris Taylor, farming manager for the Limoneria Assn., a partnership of family farms near Santa Paula in Ventura County. "We expect as much as 20% of the summer lemon production to be affected by the freeze."
North San Diego County strawberry grower Mary Hillbrecht said: "The plants are kind of shocked right now. All of the blooms have gone."
"We have several thousand trees that have been damaged," said Bob L. Vice, owner of Walker Vice Nursery in Fallbrook, where avocado orchards were hard hit by temperatures that dropped to a low of 22 degrees. "That's pretty darned cold for a tree that is supposed to be a subtropical tree."
Lettuce crops were unhurt, growers said.
In contrast, the chill will benefit asparagus crops, now underground, Silva said. If they are forced into dormancy, they will produce more stalks, he said.
The forecast caused the Orange County Social Services Agency to open the National Guard Armory in Santa Ana for two more nights to the county's homeless people.
"The general plan is anytime the forecast is for below 40 degrees, we should be open," said Bob Griffith, chief deputy director of the agency. He said that because he does not trust the long-term weather forecasts, "we're taking it a night or two at a time."