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County Seeks Disaster Relief Over Medflies : Fruit: More than 40 of the insects have now been found. Gov. Wilson is expected to declare a state of emergency in the region.

October 05, 1994|JOANNA M. MILLER and JULIE FIELDS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As inspectors continued to find more Medflies in eastern Camarillo, Ventura County officials declared a local emergency Tuesday and appealed to state and federal governments for disaster relief.

Gov. Pete Wilson is expected to declare a state of emergency in the county as early as today, county disaster officials said. Wilson was also asked to forward a request to President Clinton for a federal state of emergency, which would clear the way for federal disaster assistance as well as state funds.

The local declaration is expected to be ratified next week by the Board of Supervisors.

Officials estimated the potential damage to crops, the loss of sales and the "ripple effect" on associated industries such as packinghouses at up to $439 million.

But Ventura County agriculture officials said the potential estimate is a worst-case figure based on the total loss of all Ventura County crops that could be hosts to the Mediterranean fruit fly and its voracious larvae. Those crops include lemons, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries and tomatoes.

The find of 10 more wild male Mediterranean fruit flies Monday brought the total to 41 fertile males and two mated females. All were found within 200 meters of the original site on the grounds of St. John's Seminary on Lewis Road.

"The fact that we have a tightly clustered find is a very good sign of a tight infestation," county Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail said. "The longer we go without trapping anything outside a one-mile radius, the better off we are."

An official quarantine--which could be in effect up to six months--was also expected to be imposed today, encompassing about 81 square miles roughly within a 4.5-mile radius around the site of the fly discoveries on the seminary grounds.

Proposed boundaries, which would take into account roads, growers' fields and mountain ranges, were drawn up Tuesday by McPhail and state and federal officials and sent to Sacramento officials for approval.

As long as the infestation remains localized and can be contained quickly, it will be an "expensive but survivable" ordeal, said grower Bob Borrell, whose Somis property is within the proposed quarantine boundaries.

"But if it becomes an extensive infestation, a lot of farmers will not survive it," he said.

Meanwhile, the Fresno-based Grape and Tree Fruit League, which represents about 350 growers and shippers around the state, has asked Gov. Wilson to authorize aerial spraying of the pesticide malathion over Ventura County.

"We need to take some quick action to make sure our trading partners feel comfortable" with buying from California growers, said Richard Matoian, president of the group.

The Exotic Fruit Fly Coalition, which includes the Grape and Tree Fruit League and about 50 other organizations across the state, has also urged Wilson to begin immediate aerial spraying of malathion.

A spokesman in Wilson's office, however, said no decision on how to eradicate the pest has been made, and one may not be made for several days. The decision will depend in part on the recommendation from the Cooperative Medfly Project, a team of state and federal agriculture officials experienced in dealing with infestations.

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At a meeting Tuesday in Santa Paula with federal, state and local officials and about 300 growers and interested parties, Ventura County Supervisor Maggie Kildee said Ventura County residents should support eradication efforts, whatever the method.

"Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Ventura County," she said. "I don't believe we will have the hysteria here that has occurred in other counties." She later called aerial spraying of malathion mixed with fly bait more of an inconvenience than a health hazard.

The county's agriculture industry was worth $875 million last year, McPhail said, with about $216 million coming from lemons, $50 million from avocados, $45 million from Valencia oranges and $110 million from strawberries. Those crops all are considered by Japan to be Medfly hosts, though U.S. officials say the pests do not burrow into lemons and strawberries.

Japan, which bought about $72-million worth of top-quality lemons from Ventura County last year, will not accept fruit from a quarantine area. And local growers and officials have feared Japan would cut off sales from the entire county.

But agriculture officials in other Southern California counties with Medfly quarantines said only produce from quarantine areas was banned in Japan, not produce from entire counties.

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Koda Jun, a Japanese consul official in Los Angeles, confirmed that Japan typically bans only produce from quarantined areas, but no decision had yet been made specifically on Ventura County.

A Japanese embargo not only means lost sales to Japan but that local produce will flood the domestic market and drag down prices.

"It's all supply and demand," lemon grower Link Leavens said.

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