The farmworkers in California’s fire zones

When wildfires force thousands of Californians to evacuate, a little-known 'ag pass' program lets employers keep farmworkers on the job.

In August, 2020, a flurry of dry lightning strikes sparked over 900 fires across California. “You could smell the smoke and everything,” says Benjamín, a pseudonym for an undocumented farmworker. “It was very close.” Benjamín milked cows during the graveyard shift at Bucher Farms, a dairy farm and vineyard in Sonoma County, and he lived on the property with his wife and three children. He says his first thought when he saw the smoke was to “just run and get us out of there.”

Later on, Benjamín and his wife, Sandra, hiked to the top of a steep yellow hill and saw bursts of orange flames in the distance, shooting up above the treetops. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office issued a flurry of mandatory evacuation orders, and Sandra told her sons — who are now 10 and 8 — to pack enough clothes for a week. She threw some diapers in a bag for her baby daughter, along with some canned refried beans and chicken noodle soup. “I was concerned about how fast it would come to us,” she says. “Are we going to have enough time to get out of here?”

Benjamín didn’t evacuate with the family because, the couple says, his boss, John Bucher, wanted him to stay behind. “He said we weren’t in danger,” Benjamín remembers. “The boss said the men should stay and keep working, and the families should go.” (Originally from Mexico, Sandra and Benjamín aren’t legally authorized to work in the United States, and they didn’t want to use their real names because they fear retaliation from their former employer.)

Sandra thought staying was a bad idea. “You never know what’s gonna happen,” she says. But Benjamín told her he had to stay. Eventually, she piled the kids into the car and drove off without him. “It was a lot of work psychologically—you have to work on leaving your husband,” she says. “I couldn’t make him get out.”

“‘If I see things get pretty bad, I am not going to wait for John [Bucher],’” she remembers Benjamín promising her. If it got bad enough, he’d go.

As thousands of residents fled Sonoma County, Benjamín was one of hundreds of farmworkers who stayed behind and continued working under a little-known government “ag pass” program. During a series of fires that grew to almost half the size of Rhode Island, these workers fed animals, milked cows and picked wine grapes on farms that were under mandatory evacuation orders. To many farmers and county officials, the program is a lifeline in a region where agriculture is a pillar of the economy. But for farmworkers, ag passes put them in the unenviable position of potentially risking their lives to maintain their livelihoods.

A vineyard scorched by the The Walbridge Fire, part of the LNU Lightening Complex Fire, in Sonoma, California, in Aug. 2020. Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images.

Over the past three months in California, the Dixie Fire incinerated small towns in the Sierra foothills and reduced mountain forests to moonscapes, becoming one of the largest wildfires in state history. The Caldor Fire forced over 43,000 people in South Lake Tahoe to evacuate; the KNP Complex Fire torched giant sequoias and threatened ranchland. A bomb cyclone offered the state some relief last month when it unleashed torrential rains in Northern California, triggering mudslides and dampening wildfires, but in Southern California, fire season is dragging on. Fueled by climate change and land mismanagement, California’s fires are growing bigger, faster, and less predictable, and they’re also threatening agriculture in ways they never have before. In the past few years, they’ve scorched cattle herds and destroyed grape harvests. Fires have even burned irrigated farmland, which has often served as a crucial fire break in the past. “[I’ve seen] irrigated avocado trees that used to be a buffer burn like a regular forest,” says Jon Heggie, a spokesperson for CalFIRE, the agency which oversees wildland firefighting throughout much of the state. “That’s how much the environment is changing. It’s not all the time, but it is happening.” 

Managing wildfire in farm country is a daunting challenge for many California counties, but ag passes that allow farmworkers to keep working in fire zones are increasingly seen as a solution. Half the state’s counties have developed a program—or are coming up with one now—and Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed legislation that would standardize some aspects of them.

Sonoma County wasn’t hit by a major fire this season, but in this part of wine country, mass evacuations and smoky air are becoming something of an annual event. To understand how Benjamín found himself milking cows a few hills away from a wildfire, you have to go back to 2017, when a combination of high winds, dry conditions and downed electrical lines sparked one of the most destructive fires in California history. The Tubbs Fire burned its way through Sonoma County and leveled an entire neighborhood in Santa Rosa, a city of roughly 177,000 about an hour north of San Francisco. It killed 22 people. First responders urged residents to evacuate the area. But while many were calling 911 and trying to leave, some farmers, ranchers, and vineyard owners wanted to stay put or get back in. They had grapes to pick, missing sheep to wrangle, and cattle to feed, and they wanted to bring workers in, too. 

To help them do so, Sonoma officials, working closely with the sheriff’s office and other agencies, launched the county’s ag pass program while the fire was still raging. Sonoma modeled its program on one in neighboring Napa County, which started issuing ag passes around the same time. “Farming doesn’t stop because Mother Nature deals us a bad hand,” says Sonoma Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith, whose office runs the program. 

To Smith, ag passes are an attempt to keep businesses going and “maintain their livelihoods.” Sonoma’s wine grape industry lost over $300 million in 2020’s fire season alone, roughly cutting the value of its harvest in half. Some farmers can’t get fire insurance anymore. Others have seen their premiums skyrocket, even though the insurance won’t cover all their fire losses.

For the workers on these farms, the cost of a brutal fire season can be much worse. About 30 percent of farmworkers live in households below the federal poverty line, and many seasonal vineyard workers are paid piece rate, based on how many tons of grapes they pick. To make as much money as they can, “farmworkers are normally running for hours on end,” says Max Bell Alper, executive director of the labor and community group North Bay Jobs with Justice. If a vineyard owner loses a crop of pinot noir grapes to wildfire smoke, she can get an insurance payout (however insufficient it might be). If a vineyard worker doesn’t get to pick grapes, she doesn’t get paid at all. Up to 75 percent of California’s farmworkers are also undocumented, which means they’re often ineligible for federal disaster assistance. “Workers are willing to put themselves and their health and their lives on the line because they need the money,” says Alper.

Although it has been in use for four years, Sonoma’s ag pass program hasn’t been formally established through legislation or even a county ordinance. To apply for a pass, employers fill out a form with some basic information, and Smith’s office confirms that the applicant has a commercial farm or vineyard. What his office doesn’t do is make sure that workers on the property will be safe. Smith says that’s not his job. “The county of Sonoma is not responsible for what the ag employer is, ultimately, obligated to do according to labor laws,” he says.

So it falls to Sonoma’s sheriff’s office, which manages checkpoints, to decide whether it’s safe for workers to enter an evacuated area. According to Assistant Sheriff Jim Naugle, the department is in constant contact with CalFIRE, and deputies carefully check current fire conditions before letting anyone in. “Are the roads clear? Is there debris?” he says. “Is there active fire in spots?… It’s not like we’re just sitting there going, ‘What the heck, send them in,’” he added. “It’s very controlled.” Naugle says his department doesn’t track how many times it’s turned ag pass holders away because conditions were too dangerous. However, he can’t think of a time when they let someone into an evacuated area and later regretted it.

“It’s not our goal to put people in harm’s way,” Agriculture Commissioner Smith stresses. “It’s not our goal to put people in danger. And I think people that want to get into an evacuation area make a calculated risk.”

Those risks, however, can mount quickly. The fire that Benjamín and Sandra saw from the top of the hill was a branch of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire, which would go on to destroy around 1,500 buildings and kill five people. “I’d open the door and could smell the smoke, and then you’d look up and see the clouds of [it],” says Benjamín. “Everything looked black. You’d look at everything and just think, ‘Now what?’”

He remembers inch-long pieces of ash falling down on the farm like snow. “The whole sky and the whole ground beneath it was covered in pure ash,” he says. “You could even see the white ash in the trees.”

Benjamín could have evacuated with Sandra and the kids, but here’s why he didn’t. Back in 2019, the family had fled Bucher Farms for a week during a previous wildfire, after the county issued a mandatory evacuation order for the area. Bucher, his employer, had accepted the family’s decision to leave, but had also applied some of Benjamín’s vacation days to the time he was away. Benjamín didn’t think that was fair. He didn’t want to use up his vacation this time around, and taking unpaid time off would have been hard, too. Benjamín says he made about $34,000 a year, and while the job came with perks, like free housing in a mobile home, it wasn’t a lot of money for a family of five.

A wind-driven fire burns a structure on a farm during the Kincade fire in Windsor, California, in October 2019.  Photo by Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images.

Besides, Benjamín says, Bucher told him the animals needed help, and that workers like him wouldn’t actually be at risk. “I stayed there because, supposedly, there wasn’t any danger on the ranch,” Benjamín says. “Supposedly.”

Bucher, who agreed to an interview after weeks of requests, says he remembers watching the fire burn in the hills behind his farm. “It was like a big mushroom cloud towards the west,” he says, “and at night we could see the orange glow.”

Bucher took over the farm from his parents. “I’ve spent all my life here on this ranch, except for four years at UC Davis,” he says. “I love this area.” Over the course of more than 20 years, he’s expanded it into a successful vineyard and dairy with around 700 milk cows. Fire or no fire, he says, he needed workers to keep the operation running. The cows need to be milked every day. If not, they could get sick or potentially die. “When you’re dealing with animals, they need to be cared for—we can’t just let them suffer,” he says. “I couldn’t run this place by myself, and my employees knew if we had damage here and I couldn’t operate this business anymore, they wouldn’t have a job anymore. They were willing to help me because they knew it was a win-win.”

Benjamín says his days were a mix of mundane and surreal tasks. In addition to milking and feeding cows, “we sprayed down the buildings morning and night,” he says, “so none of it would burn.” When asked if Bucher ever mentioned the workers might have to fight the fire themselves, Benjamín said that yes, he did, even though they did not receive any training in fighting fires. His account was corroborated by another source. “This is why he’d prepared hoses around the ranch,” Benjamín says. “Because if the fire came, we were going to try to put it out.”

If the fire overtook them, Bucher—who says he had taken a fire safety training course—had a plan. But in interviews with several Bucher Farms workers and a half dozen of their family and friends, everyone’s understanding of the plan was slightly different. Benjamín and another worker agree that it involved running to a clearing in a nearby vineyard. Bucher confirmed that description and explained that the clearing was the site of a well. They had food stashed there, too—lots of beef jerky. “We had water here with a fire hose that we could protect ourselves [with],” he says. “Our last resort, if we couldn’t escape it, was here.”

Bucher insists he always had the workers’ safety in mind. He installed fire hydrants on his property, and says he monitored wind conditions and kept in regular contact with firefighters during the blaze. 

Benjamín says he decided to work during the fire in part because Bucher told him it was safe. “I do not ever remember explicitly telling any employees that they were not in danger,” Bucher said in a follow-up email. In fact, he disputes a lot of what Benjamín and other workers said, including Benjamín’s claim that workers were told they had to help fight potential fires. “But we also were prepared,” he says, “if that scenario happened.”

As the fire got worse, Benjamín’s throat grew dry and his nose got stuffy. “It was like you weren’t getting enough air for days,” he says. “For me, it was like breathing pure smoke.” He started wondering what he was doing there.

“They’re telling people that they have to evacuate because it’s a danger zone,” he remembers thinking. “So why are they giving people permission to come and go?” He also thought about the risks he and his co-workers were facing. “Their lives and mine are more important than the cows.”

When employers apply for an ag pass in Sonoma, they have to describe what farmworkers will be doing on their property—irrigating fields, for example, or picking grapes. That box on the county form is labeled “critical and essential activities.” The Agriculture Commissioner’s Office, which runs the program, hasn’t defined what a “critical and essential activity” actually is. When asked whether his office has ever turned down an employer because his proposed activities weren’t “essential” enough, Smith responded, “Why would we? What reason would we have to do that?” 

Last year, Sonoma issued passes for critical activities like giving medicine to a herd of donkeys and watering fruit trees. But passes also were given for activities that seemed less urgent, like tending the garden at a local elementary school and delivering “empty bins” to a winery. At least 44 percent of passes were issued to vineyards for harvesting, and while that’s unsurprising—Sonoma is part of California’s wine country—not everyone agrees that picking chardonnay grapes is worth this kind of risk. Santa Barbara’s ag pass program, for instance, specifically excludes it. “The Santa Barbara program is very explicitly not for agriculturalists to conduct normal agricultural activities, like harvesting or planting,” says Matthew Shapero, a livestock and range adviser with UC Cooperative Extension who helped design Santa Barbara’s program. “It’s really for emergency response”—activities like irrigating crops or feeding livestock.

Sonoma’s ag pass form also asks employers how many people they plan to bring into evacuated areas, but in 2020, employers failed to include that information about half the time. So Sonoma County officials and first responders have no way of knowing how many farmworkers are inside an evacuated area at any given time. That’s also true in neighboring Napa County, whose program didn’t collect any information on the number of farmworkers working inside fire zones in 2020. 

“It’s very disconcerting,” says CalFIRE’s Heggie, when told that some counties don’t track how many farmworkers are in mandatory evacuation zones. “I can’t ensure people’s safety if I don’t know how many people I have, where they’re at and what they’re doing.” 

Local labor advocates have raised concerns about Sonoma’s ag pass program, and county officials are working on reforming and standardizing it. The Agricultural Commissioner’s Office has drafted a proposal for a new interim program that would address some of the current system’s problems. If it’s implemented, then employers would have to complete a fire preparedness course before they get an ag pass, and the county could restrict how many farmworkers an ag pass holder can bring in.

Meanwhile, the state legislature came up with its own fix: AB 1103, which Gov. Newsom signed in October. The law standardizes pass systems, at least for some farms, and sharply limits who can use them; under the new law, only a farm’s owner or its managers can qualify for a pass and drive into a disaster zone. But after the California Association of Wine Growers opposed the law, legislators narrowed it. Today, it only applies to livestock producers like cattle ranchers. Agricultural outfits like vineyards, orchards, and strawberry fields aren’t covered by the law, which presumably means they can still use county ag passes to shuttle hundreds of farmworkers in and out of fire zones.

Five years ago, a lot of county and state officials had never really heard of an ag pass. Now, CALFire’s Heggie says he and his colleagues are interacting with these programs across California. “Now I have a workforce that’s inside a fire area, that is not trained in firefighting and fire behavior, and now that’s an element of”—he let out a long sigh—”an element of opportunity for things to go wrong.”

An aerial view of wildfire burn scars is seen in Sonoma County, California, in May 2021. Photo by Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images.

This investigation didn’t find any documented wildfire deaths connected to ag passes. But for many farmworkers working in fire zones, toxic smoke is a more pervasive threat than the flames themselves. Wildfire smoke can be up to 10 times more toxic than car exhaust and can do long-term damage to those repeatedly exposed to it. 

“Increased asthma, increased allergy symptoms, headaches,” says Santa Rosa family physician Jenny Fish, running through the long list of health impacts. “Shortness of breath. Chest pain. And if you’re breathing in more toxins, that can affect the heart.”

Fish is also a founder of Health Professionals for Equality and Community Empowerment (H-PEACE), a social justice organization of healthcare professionals. She and two other doctors affiliated with the organization described treating farmworkers in Sonoma County for chronic coughing, asthma and shortness of breath following wildfires.

When smoke gets thick enough, California employers are required by law to offer their workers N95 masks for protection, but “just to be clear, I had farmworkers say that they had never been given an N95 mask,” Fish says. Instead, workers told her they were expected to bring their own face coverings. “It’s kind of this general expectation that if you want it, then you need to figure it out yourself.” Other doctors offered similar accounts.

When told that farmworkers may not have received the masks in violation of labor law, Commissioner Smith said, “That’s unfortunate. And that’s a really good thing to forward to OSHA,” referring to Cal/OSHA, the state agency that enforces workplace safety laws. It has investigated several complaints related to work inside evacuated areas, but it also is understaffed. The agency only has 10 field investigators covering Sonoma County, and only one of them speaks Spanish.

Given what she sees among her patient population, Fish is among those advocating reform of the ag pass program. “The idea that a society doesn’t value you as a person is devastating,” she says. “It causes anger and grief and heartache to know that you’re dispensable.”

 When the LNU Lightning Complex Fire was contained near Bucher Farms in September 2020, Sandra returned to the property with their children. Shortly after coming home, she remembers telling Benjamín she couldn’t taste the corn pies she had baked and given to their neighbor. She tested positive for Covid-19 the very next day. “My hands were sweating, cold, [and] my legs couldn’t hold me,” Sandra says. The health department quarantined her at a Best Western hotel for weeks. “I didn’t know if she was going to come back or not,” Benjamín says. A few days after Sandra’s Covid-19 test, their baby daughter tested positive, too. 

Eventually, Sandra and her daughter recovered, but after everything that had happened, Benjamín and Sandra decided at the end of 2020 that it was time to leave. Benjamín was tired of working the night shift. He wanted better pay and housing, and a new boss. Today, he works for a different dairy operation far away from Sonoma. Their sons have settled in well at their new school, but Sandra sometimes worries about how the past year has affected her children. “Their minds are like little sponges,” she says. “It’s not a good thing for them to go through all these traumatic things.”

She still misses Sonoma’s rolling hillsides. But at least here, she says, no one will ask her husband to work near a wildfire.

Lead image: Aerial view during a prescribed burn in Healdsburg, California, November 11, 2020. Photograph by Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images.

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This story was produced in partnership with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and the radio show WorldAffairs. Special thanks to Levi Bridges, Ryan Howzell, Soo Oh, and Lakshmi Varanasi, who contributed reporting. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact [email protected]