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Sonoma County supervisors declare local emergency due to avian flu outbreak
The Press Democrat - 12/5/2023
Dec. 5—Sonoma County supervisors have declared a local emergency over an outbreak of highly contagious avian flu that will require euthanizing more than a quarter million ducks and laying hens from two local poultry operations.
The declaration empowers the county's director of emergency management, Jeff DuVall, to make decisions to manage the outbreak and prevent further spread of the virus to surrounding farms.
The outbreak was first detected at a commercial duck farm the day before Thanksgiving in an area of the county known for egg and poultry production.
The declaration may facilitate the acquisition of funding for public safety and emergency services spending, as well as support for businesses and more than 200 workers affected so far as a result of the outbreak.
"Whether it's for a heat wave, frost, flooding or an extended period of drought, as we've seen in the recent past in Sonoma County ... state and federal agencies are there to open up safety net resources for those that have experienced losses," said Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith.
The emergency proclamation was proposed by Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose south county district is home to the two farms grappling with the disease, as well as most of those that contribute to the county's nearly $50 million egg and poultry industry.
"We just feel like we need to do our part here to have our best shot at providing some assistance for those affected, including the employees and the employers," Rabbitt said.
Avian Flu Emergency Resolution
Supervisors approved the emergency proclamation 4-0 (Supervisor James Gore was out sick) after an urgency item was added to Tuesday's regular meeting agenda.
The proclamation was approved as workers from Sunrise Farms outside Petaluma completed the grim work of euthanizing what remained of more than 82,000 hens exposed to the virus on a company farm off Bodega Avenue, co-owner Mike Weber said.
Officials had intended to compost the birds on the site, but they are being transported to the county's central landfill off Mecham Road for disposal as "special waste" in an area reserved for materials that need to be handled more carefully than regular trash.
State and federal food and agriculture agencies cited access and space issues at the Sunrise site, and the wet ground and a nearby watercourse risked the danger of transporting the virus to other properties.
"It wasn't a decision we made," Weber said. "It was a government decision ... and we're supporting and doing anything we can to keep it from spreading to other commercial and backyard flocks."
Johannes Hoevertsz, Sonoma County's director of transportation and public works, said the landfill, run by Republic Services of Sonoma County, is positioned to receive waste that requires special handling, with a separate "cell that is specifically prepared for that kind of material."
Numerous wildfires that resulted in hazardous or unsafe materials provided lots of practice, he said. Special linings in the disposal pits are designed to prevent leaching.
"It gets treated different. It gets put in a special location in the landfill," Hoevertsz said.
Bird flu has advanced around the country in the past two years, spread largely through waterfowl and other wild birds that may carry the virus without showing symptoms more common in domesticated poultry.
California is among 47 states to experience outbreaks that nationally have affected more than 68 million birds, including more than 1.1 million in California.
Twenty-one domestic flocks in California have been affected since the outbreak began last year, most recently in San Benito and Sonoma counties.
The first local case was discovered Nov. 22 at Reichardt Duck Farm near Two Rock, where almost 170,000 Pekin ducks were euthanized and composted.
Five days later, chickens became ill at a Sunrise Farms' site off Bodega Avenue.
Weber said there are probably 1 million commercially raised birds within 5 miles of there that remain susceptible to a virus that becomes airborne and can also spread through fecal matter or feed, soil and water tainted by the disease.
It also can be transmitted on boots, gloves and other equipment.
Poultry farms have been on notice for most of two years to maximize biosecurity measures intended to prevent that from happening. But some agriculture leaders and farmers fear activists who have trespassed at the Reichardt site and other Sunrise properties could be responsible for the local outbreak, though any evidence is circumstantial, at this point.
Members of Direct Action Everywhere, the animal welfare group targeting Sonoma County farms, also has denounced those making the accusation, noting their own commitment to biosecurity and preservation of animal lives. They say agricultural stakeholders are deflecting responsibility for what they say are crowded, inhumane conditions that contribute to disease.
One prominent activist, Zoe Rosenberg, who is facing criminal trespass and conspiracy charges related to incursions at Reichardt and Petaluma Poultry earlier this year, also said the Sunrise Farms site affected has never been the target of Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE.
Rabbitt said he still finds the coincidence "perplexing, to say the least," particularly given evidence that DxE members came into Reichardt barns within the 10- to 14-day incubation period of the outbreak there.
Weber said he is anxious about the vulnerability of neighboring producers and those who keep backyard flocks for eggs or pets and said hobbyists may not be sufficiently aware of the avian flu.
He's also concerned about the dozens of workers who have taken over euthanizing birds they raised from the beginning.
"This is not something easy to process," he said. "We have to get them dead as fast as possible because they're posing a threat in the area. It's just such a wicked, wicked time right now."
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On X/Twitter @MaryCallahanB.
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