By Ben Klayman
(Reuters) - Dani Hahn was terrified as she watched dozens of firefighters racing to light a small blaze that they hoped would clear enough space to halt the giant wildfire advancing on her rose farm at the foot of Southern California's Santa Ynez Mountains.
The owner of Rose Story Farm in the seaside city of Carpinteria saw her trampled roses and avocados and felled citrus trees as "small prices" to pay to ensure her farm did not suffer more than the scorching it received on Tuesday from the Thomas Fire, one of the state's largest ever wildfires.
"We know we live in a desert climate and are prone to wildfires, but I don't think anyone could expect the scope of this," she said by telephone this week.
The tale of Rose Story Farm was repeated at farms and nurseries across the Carpinteria Valley, a region state officials tout as the "flower basket of the United States" because more cut flowers are grown there than anywhere else in the nation.
Imported flowers from Colombia and other South American countries make up 80 percent of the U.S. cut flower market, but the majority of the U.S. supply comes from California, state officials said. And most of that comes from the more than 40 farms and nurseries in the Carpinteria region that grow blooms including roses, Gerbera daisies, orchids and lilies.
Industry officials consider the singeing of Rose Story Farm, lower output from other farms because staff could not get to work and possible ash damage as a better-than-expected outcome compared with their worst fears.
"We've been pretty fortunate," Kasey Cronquist, chief executive of the California Cut Flower Commission, which promotes the state's flower farmers, said by phone while visiting the fire-damaged area.
The Thomas Fire has claimed the life of one firefighter and burned down more than 700 homes. Strong winds in the mountains near Santa Barbara could cause flare-ups in the coming days.
But the region's flower growers, who employ almost 800 people and generate a daily economic impact of more than $2.1 million according to Cronquist, have dodged serious damage much to the delight of florists and brides-to-be everywhere.
However, they have not escaped unscathed: Rose Flower Farm lost almost a week of deliveries in an industry where the product is shipped daily.
"These aren't crops that can just hang on trees and wait until this thing passes," Cronquist said. "It's a very perishable product that just needs to keep moving."
Carpinteria's West Orchids Inc, founded by one of four Dutch families who moved to the valley in the late 1960s to grow flowers, saw the flames advance to within a half-mile of the 30-acre farm, keeping workers away.
Its marketing director, David Van Wingerden, figured he will have to pay a lot of overtime as staff catch up, and he worried the ash covering his greenhouses could slow flower growth.
"The impact is going to be yet to come," he said. "We'll have to see if we have any quality issues."
Hahn said the 200 rose stems she lost to firefighting efforts were nothing compared to the 25,000 roses and property they saved. Hann and her husband Bill charge $45 for 10 stems.
She recalled the 50-foot flames approaching her 15-acre farm and the relief she felt when the firefighters' plan to create a gap with a second blaze snuffed out the approaching danger.
"You could feel it. You could hear it," she said of the heat and flames.
People further afield were also affected. Liz Griffith, owner of Siloh Floral Artistry in Denver, has a destination wedding on the Big Island of Hawaii on Saturday. She had ordered 100 stems from Rose Story Farm but knew Monday they wouldn't arrive.
Griffith arranged for 50 roses from another supplier and filled in with other flowers. Having had other weddings she served affected by a tsunami or ravenous insects, she took the news in stride.
"The world of flowers is pretty much unpredictable because we can't control nature," Griffith said.
(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)