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Worsening wildfires in California’s wine country threaten low-wage farm workers

Wildfire season is here and in California alone, this year's fires have already burned more acres than at this time in 2020. In recent years, Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, where wine vineyards dot the landscape and tourism is a billion-dollar industry, wildfire has become a part of daily life. But as Stephanie Sy reports it affects certain groups worse than others.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have been reporting for the past few weeks, wildfire season is here.

    In California alone, fires have already burned more acres than at this time last year. Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, where wine vineyards dot the landscape and tourism is a billion-dollar industry, wildfires are now part of daily life.

    Stephanie Sy is back now with how it affects certain groups worse than others, part of our Race Matters series.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The Tubbs Fire in 2017, the Kincade in 2019, and last year's Glass Fire, which forced tens of thousands of evacuations in the midst of the pandemic.

    Worsening wildfires in California's Wine Country seem to burn houses and hovels indiscriminately, but advocates say the workers who toil in fields to produce some of the country's most expensive wines in the shadow of multimillion-dollar homes risk losing much more.

  • Maria Salinas (through translator):

    As humans, we deserve to be treated as equals.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Maria Salinas was a farmworker in Sonoma County for years. Now she advocates for the thousands of indigenous Mexican and Central American people living in the region, populations who may find themselves especially vulnerable during wildfire season.

    For example, they may not understand emergency alerts and evacuation orders.

  • Maria Salinas (through translator):

    When there are natural disasters, the announcements don't get to this community because they're only in English or Spanish.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Spanish is not understood by many of the indigenous Mexican and Central American workers in the region. And even if they did speak it, a statewide audit after the 2017 fires revealed the county only sent emergency warnings in English. That has since changed.

    In recent years, Salinas and other organizers have had to make direct contact with indigenous community members to make sure people know fires are approaching.

  • Maria Salinas (through translator):

    On the radio or on Facebook, they're saying that people need to evacuate or go to a shelter. But these messages are never translated into indigenous languages. Also, many indigenous people feel uncomfortable going to shelters, because no one speaks their language.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Even when they do get the message, there are additional concerns, especially for the some 40,000 undocumented immigrants in the county.

  • Maria Salinas (through translator):

    They fear that immigration authorities will ask for their documents or question them about their status.

    To live here as an immigrant without papers is very scary.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Another vulnerability here is economic. The loss of work during wildfires can be devastating. And the fire season often coincides with the wine harvest.

  • Alegria De La Cruz:

    Harvest season for farmworkers is one of the most critical times for income generation during the entire season.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Alegria De La Cruz is the director of the Office of Equity for Sonoma County, which was created after it became apparent that last year's dual pandemic and wildfire crises had an outsized impact on Latino, undocumented and indigenous people.

    She says farmworkers are protected by California's relatively strict labor laws, even if undocumented, but enforcement often lags.

  • Alegria De La Cruz:

    We have the strongest labor laws in the country and they're still not enough. We don't have a sufficient amount of enforcement resources to make those rights true, right, to make them real.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Advocates say, with another wildfire season upon them, not enough has been done to protect the workers, who are the backbone of the Wine Country economy.

    Grapes don't like smoke. In the past, certain wineries might be granted access to their vineyards even if they fell in evacuation zones. Workers might find themselves trying to save the grapes near wildfires, while potentially endangering themselves.

  • Anabel Garcia (through translator):

    When the fire started coming, we were called into work.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Anabel Garcia has been a farmworker in Sonoma for 20 years. She came face to face with wildfire in 2017.

  • Anabel Garcia (through translator):

    They sent messages to the whole group who were responsible for harvesting grapes, so we had to go. We had red eyes and itchy throats from the smoke.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It sounds like you were working in an evacuation zone. Did you know that you were working in an evacuation zone?

  • Anabel Garcia (through translator):

    All we knew was that we were being called into work. We didn't have another option, because, during the harvest, this is our only income that we use to pay rent and our bills.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Were you getting paid extra?

  • Anabel Garcia (through translator):

    No. You only receive a check for the hours that you have worked during emergencies like this.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In recent months, Garcia worked with the local nonprofit North Bay Jobs With Justice to survey dozens of farmworkers about their experiences during wildfires.

    They came up with five demands to mitigate the impacts of the disasters on low-wage workers in Sonoma County: multilingual messaging, disaster insurance, community safety observers, premium hazard pay, and clean bathrooms and water.

    But Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, says there are adequate protections for workers, and the fires also put growers in a difficult spot.

  • Karissa Kruse:

    So, when you talk about actual harvest, if our growers don't harvest a grape, it's not that they are missing a couple of weeks where they didn't get to work as the farmer. It's that they get zero income, zero.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    One estimate shows wine companies suffered losses as high as $3.7 billion during last year's wildfire season.

  • Karissa Kruse:

    The farmers can get through a few years of dealing with the financial impact. And then they lose the ranch. And at some point, there is that breaking point that really impacts agriculture and potentially makes our family farming community not be a family farming community.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But whether it's the growers or government, Anabel Garcia wants to see more resources put toward worker safety and economic security.

  • Anabel Garcia (through translator):

    Those who drink wine have no idea what it takes to make the wine, from planting to harvest. We don't have any kind of support.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And she believes the country's farmworkers have earned it.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Sonoma County, California.

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