As wildfire smoke billowed into the wine-producing region of Sonoma County, California, workers continued harvesting grapes, day and night. Even in evacuation zones, where the safety threat from flames was severe enough for officials to ask residents to leave the area, the county agriculture commissioner invited workers to continue laboring in the fields, doling out evacuation-area access passes to dozens of agricultural producers. With undocumented immigrants — many of them workers from Latin American Indigenous communities — already economically drained after surviving months of the pandemic with virtually no government support, workers were in no position to decline an offer for work.
For the workers, their hands were forced by a combination of circumstances as toxic as the ash that falls over the region’s famous vineyards: the economic drive to keep the wine industry going; the lack of resources for non-Spanish-speaking workers; a near-total dearth of economic support; the economic stresses of the coronavirus pandemic; and a climate of fear around immigration enforcement that prevents the workers from asking for help.
What’s needed more than anything, advocates say, is an economic safety net in times of disaster so that people don’t have to accept perilous work and changes to immigration laws, so they don’t have to fear offers of help.
“We work when there are rains, we work when there is fire, we work in whatever conditions. There is no resource we can count on, so there’s nothing left but to work.”
“We work when there are rains, we work when there is fire, we work in whatever conditions. It isn’t the most viable, but it is a necessity to provide for our families here or the parts of our families that stayed in our place of origin,” said Gervacio Peña Lopez, a board member of the local Indigenous workers’ group Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena, who is Mixtec and worked in the fields for years. “There is no resource we can count on, so there’s nothing left but to work.”
Officials that regulate evacuation order exemptions have close relationships to agricultural associations that serve local business owners’ interests. Over four years of massive wildfires, the wine region’s agricultural commissioners worked closely with the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and Sonoma County Winegrowers to repeatedly grant permission to growers to harvest in wildfire-evacuation zones. Smoke from wildfires can damage the delicate flavor of the region’s world-famous wines. The threat of deep financial losses creates a pressing incentive to harvest as quickly as possible, even when fire and smoke risk damage to lungs — and especially during a year when yields are expected to be lower than usual and the pandemic cut down restaurant sales.
During the Walbridge and Meyers wildfires this year, Sonoma County provided access certifications to 375 employers, county communications manager Paul Gullixson told The Intercept. However, he added, “Not all of those property owners, farmers, workers, and vineyard owners ultimately were allowed access to their property.”
Although Sonoma County, like many other counties, has a process for permitting agriculture workers to enter evacuation area fields, “the ultimate decision-making authority concerning when and where property owners are allowed access rests with Cal Fire and other fire officials as well as the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, CHP” — California Highway Patrol — “and other law enforcement officials who determine whether going back inside evacuated areas is safe,” Gullixson said. “No one will be allowed to go inside evacuated areas if there is a real and present fire risk — regardless of what certification they may have in their possession.”
Asked why such access would be allowed, he said the reasons are varied: dairy cows whose health will be put at risk if they’re not milked, for instance, or irrigation systems and crops that need checking up on. “This is true of vineyard owners and managers who sometimes seek permission to access vineyards in evacuated areas — when it’s safe to do so — to harvest grapes,” Gullixson said.
He pointed to a temporary emergency regulation that requires employers to provide N95 masks and training to workers when the air quality is bad. California farm and growers associations, however, have fought efforts to enact a stronger, permanent regulation.
The situation would be worrisome in good times, but Latinx residents of the county have been hit harder than other demographic groups by the pandemic. Half of the confirmed Covid-19 cases in Sonoma County have been Latinx patients, although they represent only 25 percent of the population. The tally leaves invisible the impact to the county’s Indigenous immigrant population, many of whom do not speak Spanish and have distinct cultural practices and needs, like the Triqui population in Sonoma County, which mostly hails from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and the Mixtec community, also from southern Mexico.
Members of Peña Lopez’s organization, who provide some of the only culturally specific services in the area, fear that the effect of wildfire smoke on their community members’ lungs will deepen their vulnerability to Covid-19.
What happens in California, which has passed some of the only labor rules in the U.S. around extreme heat and wildfire smoke, will likely be mimicked across the country, as state and federal legislators grapple with the impacts of increasingly severe fires, floods, and heat. But far more than masks rules will be needed to protect workers in wildfire zones.
Over the past year, the environmental movement and Democratic Party politicians have given increasing lip service to the concept of “environmental justice,” promising to prioritize protecting the nation’s most vulnerable people. The conditions for Sonoma County’s grape harvesters reveal the crowded intersection of problems that a meaningful climate justice agenda would have to take on: from immigrant rights to worker protections to altered land-use planning.
In California and across the U.S., a dearth of public supports designed for undocumented immigrants confronting increasingly common natural disasters will inevitably deepen already desperate economic situations. With their own labor as the only resource available to countless people, the pool of workers willing to take on unsafe jobs will only expand. So long as government officials continue to prioritize the needs of business owners also hurt by disasters, workers are likely to find themselves in increasingly dangerous situations.
This summer, the immigrant workers toiling in Sonoma County’s smoke-filled vineyards were the epitome of these dangers.
A Public-Private Collaboration
This isn’t the first round of wildfires Sonoma workers have endured. The Tubbs fire, which for a single year was the most destructive fire in California history before being overshadowed by the Camp fire, tore through the county in 2017, followed by the Kincade fire in 2019. The increasingly severe wildfires and the dry conditions that have helped drive them are consistent with scientists’ expectations for the effects of climate change.
During those past fires, as now, workers were allowed to enter evacuation zones to conduct “critical functions,” including, “harvesting, feeding and watering livestock, managing fermentations, and irrigating nursery crops,” according to a December 2019 post by then-Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar.
Working with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, California Highway Patrol, and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, the agricultural commission issued evacuation zone entry permits to 280 groups of people in 2017 and 67 in 2019, Linegar wrote. But industry groups also played a key role: The Farm Bureau and Sonoma Winegrowers acted as a “clearinghouse for all of the access requests,” the agricultural commissioner added. “I was literally in constant contact with them day and night throughout the event.”
Linegar noted that a statewide protocol is needed for future fires and argued that the process must include the California State Sheriff’s Association, Agricultural Commissioner representatives, and California Farm Bureau Federation. He did not mention workers’ groups, like Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena.
Worker organizations are pushing on their own for a regulation that will at least make clear that outdoor labor should only be authorized in wildfire zones by the authority that ordered the evacuation, typically CalFire and local law enforcement. If workers are allowed into such areas, employers should create an evacuation plan. “We were very concerned whether workers were taken in and left without a form of transportation to get out quickly,” said Anne Katten, pesticide and work safety project director for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
“We were very concerned whether workers were taken in and left without a form of transportation to get out quickly.”
Nearly a year after Linegar’s post, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire, confirmed that fire officials and local law enforcement across the state still grant permissions on a “case-by-case basis.”
Sonoma County Winegrowers President Karissa Kruse denied playing a deciding role in access permissions. “While we are a liaison between local farmers and a variety of governmental agencies, including CalFire, the county ag commissioner, the county sheriff’s office, and others, we have no ability to grant access to a disaster area. That permission can only be provided by the sheriff’s office,” she told The Intercept. The sheriff’s office referred all questions about evacuation area access to the county agriculture department. The Sonoma County Farm Bureau also did not respond to queries.
“In Sonoma County, our local farmers care about their employees. Many of the men and women employed by our farms have become like family, working with their respective farming families for decades,” Kruse told The Intercept. “Safety and health have been and remain a top priority during harvest and throughout the year.”
Yet in the midst of yet another devastating fire season, no clear protocol for granting evacuation area access yet exists. Only in the past week did workers’ organizations obtain a meeting with the county to discuss worker safety in evacuation zones. And advocates say another regulation that has emerged does not match federal public health guidelines and has confronted pushback from growers.
Insufficient Regulations for Work in Smoke
In the wake of past fires, California became the only state in the U.S. to create a worker safety standard designed specifically for wildfire smoke, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. After the Tubbs fire, worker advocates with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and other groups began pushing for worker protections when the air quality is low. The result was a temporary emergency order passed in the summer of 2019. It requires employers to determine the air quality at the beginning of each shift. If the air is bad, they must first attempt to take measures to avoid smoke, like moving to a less smoky location or scheduling work at times of day that are less hazardous. If they can’t escape the bad air, they must offer workers N95 masks and training on how to use them
The regulations, however, are insufficient, advocates say. For one, the protections are triggered too late, leaving many people laboring in unhealthy air without any required precautions.
The rule is based on what is known as the Air Quality Index, the EPA’s system for measuring the concentration of tiny particulate matter in the air. Particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers or smaller worries health professionals most. If inhaled, it can irritate the lungs and lead to diseases. One recent study indicated that Montana communities had flu rates three to five times higher than usual after they were hit by wildfires. “It makes you a whole lot more susceptible to all sorts of things,” said Kent Pinkerton, director of the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at the University of California, Davis. “Covid-19 would be an immediate concern.”
Any AQI reading above 100 means the air is “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” while 151 is simply “unhealthy.” A reading above 300 is considered “hazardous.” Under the California regulation, masks don’t have to be offered until the index hits 151, and they’re not required unless it exceeds 500.
That’s why the regulations fall short of needs, advocates say. Most, if not all, of California’s agricultural workforce qualify as “sensitive,” according to the EPA’s definitions. A 2019 agency report, “Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials,” defines “sensitive groups” as including people of a “low socioeconomic status,” a composite measure that includes educational attainment, household income, percentage of the population in poverty, race and ethnicity, and location of residence. The limited access to health care that frequently accompanies “low socioeconomic status” means that underlying problems may go undiagnosed or untreated, the guide notes. Combined with a lowered ability to take measures that can reduce smoke exposure, such as closing windows and using an air conditioner to manage high heat, such groups are left “more likely to be adversely affected and less likely to recover,” the EPA says. What’s more, outdoor workers in general are considered a sensitive population, and workers with underlying conditions like asthma or diabetes are unlikely to notify their employers.
At an AQI reading of 101, the air tends to look hazy, and sensitive groups are advised to “avoid physical exertion” and “limit time spent outdoors.” That’s when workers should have access to masks, said Pinkerton. At 151, the air begins to resemble a fog. “Really, at 150, no one should be working,” he said, adding that, at those levels, “the N95 masks — even the ones properly fitted — will eventually clog up and no longer be effective and actually cause labored breathing. An N95 properly fitted probably only is good for a couple hours.”
Meanwhile, Pinkerton said, the regulation’s upper limit is meaningless. An AQI of 501 is a condition so smoky, only firefighters might encounter it: “If the AQI goes above 200, absolutely no workers should be in the field.”
Advocates are pushing for masks to be offered at AQI 101 and required at 301, but a coalition of business associations, including the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the California Farm Bureau Federation, the Wine Institute, and more than two-dozen other groups, has pushed back. In comments submitted to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the coalition argued that requiring businesses to provide masks at an air quality index of 101 would add an unnecessary cost, especially since 101 is more common than 151.
“If the AQI goes above 200, absolutely no workers should be in the field.”
The business associations acknowledged that an index reading above 300 is rare, but they also warned that requiring masks to be worn at that level could cause a temporarily halt to field work. At a 301 reading, the regulation would also require workers to undergo a medical evaluation to assure that they are able to use their mask, and for the mask to be fit-tested to assure that it is worn properly. The coalition of groups suggested the expense would not be worth the day’s work.
The final wildfire smoke rule will be decided by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health in the coming months, but the temporary version is being tested now.
So far, advocates say the mask regulation is being implemented inconsistently and enforced sparsely by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. Local reporters have interviewed multiple people who say they haven’t been offered masks. With N95 masks in short supply, leaders of Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena say that the workers they are in contact with are more likely to receive a mask from a nonprofit than their supervisor. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health did not respond to a request for comment.
Even for workers that manage to obtain the recommended personal protective equipment, “You can’t last an hour working hard with those masks,” said Peña Lopez, who worked in the fields for years. Paid by volume, rather than time, grape harvesters spend their shifts running, often picking in the middle of the night, when the grapes’ sugar levels are stable. A good day means two tons of grapes per person, said Peña Lopez. It’s exhausting, hot, messy labor. Many of the community members Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena works with labored in the smoky fields this summer with only useless cloth masks — or no masks at all.
Disaster Upon Disaster
The most obvious solution might seem to be to keep workers out of the fields when there’s an unhealthy level of smoke. But it’s not so simple, especially when disasters pile upon disasters.
One reason Sonoma is a key example for understanding what environmental justice requires is that the wine-producing county has had to deal with wildly varied climate and public health disasters — not just fires and the heat waves, but also floods and, this year, a pandemic.
Last February, the county endured massive flooding, the effects of an “atmospheric river,” a corridor of concentrated water vapor in the sky that can dump massive amounts of rain. Such “rivers” are expected to drop even more rain as temperatures continue to rise. Peña Lopez lost his home to the flood waters, and without a formal contract describing the living arrangement, he was unable to access any recovery support. Meanwhile, the heat waves that contribute to wildfires’ intensity and atmospheric rivers’ water vapor content can, on their own, make the harvest perilous for workers.
Perhaps more than any other recent disaster, however, the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated the way consecutive mega-disasters can compound and deepen the vulnerability of the most economically insecure. As was true in much of the rest of the U.S., for the Indigenous immigrant communities of Sonoma, anxiety over losing income was as severe as concerns about health effects. The difference in Sonoma County was that a large proportion of the workforce lacks access to any meaningful income replacement. Undocumented workers cannot typically obtain unemployment or federal disaster supports like stimulus checks.
“We’ve simply been excluded for a long time. Because of that, we as an Indigenous community are fighting for our own people.”
Eager to look friendly to desperate immigrants, California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom offered $500 assistance cards. But advocates say that for many, the paltry sum wasn’t worth the risk to their safety. “Some people were afraid that if they received assistance from the governor, the federal government would know and might be able to obtain information about where to find them,” Peña Lopez explained. He said he has heard of mothers of children born in the U.S. who were too terrified to even use special welfare benefit cards provided to account for lost school lunches.
As the pandemic raged, many of those who lost work in the service sector or other industries turned to the fields, where agricultural labor had been declared essential. More than ever, the harvest became a solitary sustaining force in Sonoma County. This year, its busiest and most lucrative period dovetailed perfectly with the early and aggressive wildfire season.
After the Tubbs fire, the organizations Jobs With Justice, the Graton Day Labor Center, and the North Bay Organizing Project launched the UndocuFund to provide basic necessities to community members. It was relaunched in response to the Kincade fire and in 2020, filled in the gaps left by a dearth of public services offered during the pandemic. At the peak of the crisis, the fund had a waitlist of 4,500 people looking for benefits. The question of what will be needed to support wildfire survivors remains unanswered. (Grape-growing industry figures also operate their own fund to benefit employees.)
In the wake of so many crises with so little support, Indigenous people working the fields are developing their own infrastructures of support. When the wildfires came, members of Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena were ready with tents and an open area where people could camp, having learned time and again that their community is fearful of shelters operated federal agencies. They’ve created a network of diverse language speakers for emergencies, and they’ve launched their own separate fund to support services for Indigenous immigrants — not only for translators, but also culturally specific resources for healing, like weaving therapy, traditional herb cleanses, music lessons, and family-friendly language classes.
For Peña Lopez, climate justice means building Indigenous people’s power so that they can support themselves.
“We’ve given you fruit and vegetables at a good price,” said Peña Lopez, explaining the low-wage, taxed labor Indigenous farmworkers carried out, despite the risks of the pandemic and the wildfires. “In the hour when we need some resource to survive this crisis situation, they don’t give us support. We’ve simply been excluded for a long time. Because of that, we as an Indigenous community are fighting for our own people.”