FIRE AND FUTURE AT NOBLE ORCHARDS

The day before the fire, the Nobles had just finished harvesting the orchard’s signature Pink Lady apples, and had placed them in the cold storage building with the earlier-harvested varieties. Here is how the Nobles found the apples when they were able to return to their land.

This year marks the ninety-eighth year Noble Orchards has grown apples in the foothills of Paradise. Established in 1921, it is one of few apple orchards remaining in Butte County. As flames swallowed the Town of Paradise and spit out hunks of rubble, the trees of Noble Orchards survived mostly intact. Jim and Laurie Noble anticipate continuing to farm. Their response to the fire embodies courage, generosity, and honor, much as their family name implies. Noble Orchards still sits near the end of Pentz Road at the top of Paradise, though much has changed. Among the thirty-five acres of producing fruit trees, a number of buildings and homes used to stand. All the buildings are now destroyed by the Camp Fire.

“Everything that was standing on the property is gone. There were eleven buildings total, and they’ve all been burned down or burned out. The big metal cold storage has apples rolling out of it. Everything needs to be torn down,” Laurie Noble reports. That’s just one task she and her husband Jim now face.

Early on the morning of November 8, 2018, the Nobles were at Mountain View Christmas Tree Farm in Paradise to borrow a forklift they needed to harvest their last apples. Laurie bent down to pick up a thin, two-inch piece of charcoal that had floated to the ground in front of her. She could hear folks from the canyon ridge shout warnings of wild flames in the canyon below. The Nobles hurried the forklift back to their house as parents were still dropping their kids off at nearby Ponderosa Elementary School without concern. The Nobles, however, were very concerned for their orchard.

As they hightailed it up the road to check on the orchard, they hit a wall of traffic. At the orchard, they met fire. Firefighters from the Town of Paradise warned them to evacuate immediately. The fire was much bigger—and spreading much faster—than anyone had anticipated. Laurie recalled, “That’s what set the stage. It just happened so fast. Of course, we all know that.”

Jim took one vehicle, Laurie took another, a neighbor packed up their dogs, and they all drove away from the hazy orange gunk in the sky. The three were separated and trapped for hours by a combination of fire, panic, and cars that clogged the roads. Jim and Laurie reunited the next day and, after trips to shelters in Chico and Oroville, eventually found their two dogs safe and sound. The Nobles say the evacuation process was just as everyone describes: horrific and terrifying.

Now that days, weeks, and months stretch out after the fire, it is clear that life will be different. As Laurie recounts stories about the farm, its structures, and rich family history, most end with “of course, that’s gone now.” She tells me about finding the plans Grandpa Noble himself drew up to build the original rock garage back in the 1930s, drawings found in a drawer of a dresser in one of the orchard’s sheds. She reminds me that, of course, these drawings and the shed too are gone.

Perry Benjamin, Grandpa Noble, and his wife Ethyl operated the thirty-five acre farm on the ridge from the 1920s until the 60s. At that time, their eldest son and his wife, Vincent and Julia Noble, took over. James A. Noble, husband of Laurie, returned to the farm after serving during the Vietnam War and has been growing apples ever since. He and Laurie, whose friendly face greets customers at farmers’ markets and events, took over the operation in 2002. The two operate the farm, growing, harvesting, pruning, and selling their apples, peaches, and nectarines through the Chico’s farmers’ markets as well as on the farm.

Most trees in the orchard, some solar panels and water storage tanks, and one tractor survive the fire. “That means that there is a future for the operation,” avows Laurie. “If the trees had all been destroyed and we had to start from ground zero, we might make some different decisions. We still have four or five varieties of peaches and nectarines and thirteen or fourteen varieties of apples.”

In total, they lost thirty or forty trees on the north end of the orchard, which were in close proximity to large, hotburning ponderosa pines. Though many of the trees survived, the equipment the Nobles use for harvesting, pruning, and caring for their trees has been destroyed. Miles of drip tape and irrigation system parts melted and will need to be replaced.

Jim and Laurie Noble stand beside a burned wooden building that Grandpa Noble had overlaid years ago with serpentine rock. The Nobles hope to repurpose the rock in a structure for orchard visitors, perhaps as an apron on a large deck.

As Laurie recounts stories about the farm, its structures, and rich family history, most end with “of course, that’s gone now.”—Laurie Noble, Noble Orchards

Unfortunately, there isn’t much farming or life that can resume on the property while the Nobles, along with many in Paradise, wait in line to have their debris cleared and removed, soil tested, water restored. Without an irrigation system, power, farming equipment, and a timeline for debris removal and rebuilding, Laurie and Jim do not anticipate harvesting fruit this year.

But Laurie looks forward to using whatever salvageable parts and pieces built by Grandpa Noble in the 1920s and ‘30s they can; they will also be bringing Noble Orchards into the twenty-first century. She has plans to make the orchards friendly for the 300 visitors who come daily to the farm stand during harvest so they can park their vehicles and see the operation.

There is a future for Noble Orchards in Paradise. “The quality of apples produced in the foothills far exceed what’s grown in the valley,” says Laurie. “Yes, there are apple producers and there have been other apple producers in Butte County. . . . The public has realized that you can’t put houses everywhere and still produce food. It’s important to have a balance between the two.As one door closes, several others open. Most evacuees’ experience has been the goodness in everyone’s souls, the kindness, the compassion, and it is so appreciated, needed, and respected. That makes it all bearable.”

“Granny Smith apples must be some of the hardiest apples in the world,” notes Laurie Noble. Granny Smiths still cling to Noble Orchards’ bare tree branches several months after the fire.

Laurie says that friends, strangers, and farmers near and far have offered to donate equipment and supplies to rebuild and keep the operation going. “It’s amazing to know that other people are here to help. They say, ‘We know those people have burned. Let’s see what we can do for them.’”

Friends at Sunset View Growers in Oroville offered the Nobles a place to stay just after the fire and probably had no idea that Laurie and Jim would still be staying with them months later. Once they get back on their feet, Jim and Laurie Noble will be happy to pay back what was given to them to some person, somewhere, in some way. Maybe that day will be their centennial celebration coming up in 2021, which Laurie Noble fully intends to share with the community.