Citrus growers in east Redlands and Mentone fired up oil-burning smudge pots, some for the first time since January 2007, to protect their fruit and trees from below-freezing temperatures before dawn on Sunday.
The current cold snap is a concern for growers statewide, with an estimated $1.5 billion in fruit still ripening in groves from the Inland Empire to the Central Valley, according to the growers association California Citrus Mutual.
Old-school smudge pots burned and glowed in rows in a grove next to Citrus Avenue in east Redlands before 6 a.m. in pre-dawn darkness. Growers also had water flowing in the groves to keep ground temperatures warmer, and some of the water formed ice on trees and fruit.
Wind machines on towers, some driven by modified auto engines, droned overhead in many groves.
Dale Daniels, 51, oversees about 10 acres in Mentone. He was with another grower before 7 a.m. in a grove off Third Street east of Crafton Avenue.
"My family's been working citrus here for generations," Daniels told Redlands-Loma Linda Patch. "I've done it probably 30 years. We smudged here too. There's some pots going in the back, and you can hear the wind machines going.
"It was like 25 overnight, a couple hours it seemed like," Daniels said. "It's heated back up in the safe zone right now. It was '07 the last time we did this. We kept the heat up above 29, to about 30 degrees, which is safe zone. It was very cold tonight though."
Ben Castro, 65, was driving on Citrus Avenue before 6 a.m. and stopped to ask how cold it was. He said he grew up on Sapphire near Colton Avenue, working in the groves sometimes with his father.
"It warms my heart to see the smudge pots going," Castro said. "I grew up in the citrus industry here. When I was a boy we got out of school to go out smudging at night, and to fill pots during the day for the next cold night.
"I started smudging when I was 9 years old, went out with my dad," Castro said. "My dad worked for Bob Payne, which is this grove right here. Last time I remember seeing them smudge was in '07, up on the corner of Crafton and Colton Avenue. . . .
"Lemme tell ya, I used to work with my dad who used to haul oranges for Payne as well," Castro said. "Redlands used to be the navel orange grove citrus capital of the world. They used to ship out a hundred box cars of citrus every day at the peak of the season. A lot of history here."
A representative with California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, Tulare County, said Sunday the freeze was a worry for commercial growers statewide, but so far it was not as bad as expected.
"It is a concern," Alyssa Houtby of Citrus Mutual said in a phone interview before 9 a.m. Sunday. "In the past three days growers in the San Joaquin Valley have spent $11.4 milion in frost protection."
Houtby was surprised to hear of smudge pots being used in Redlands and Mentone, and emphasized that has not been the industry standard for decades.
"We don't use smudge pots any more," Houtby said. "We run water to warm up ground temperature and use wind machines to circulate the warm air. We stopped smudging in the 1960s. There are some places where they still smudge. But that's not the industry standard for reasons of air quality and effectiveness."
Houtby said $1.5 billion worth of fruit - about 75 percent of the citrus crop statewide - remains on trees, still to be harvested.
Avocado growers in east Redlands also used propane-burning heaters early Sunday in a grove near Highland and Opal.
Areas of frost and below freezing temperatures are possible again this week in wind-sheltered areas of the Inland Empire, according to the National Weather Service.
Sensitive plants and crops may be damaged or killed if unprotected, forecasters warned.
One of the last times growers smudged in east Redlands and Mentone was during a cold snap in January 2007. Growers lost 60 percent of the state's citrus crop due to freezing temps that month, according to industry officials.
East Redlands and Mentone are in San Bernardino County, about 70 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.