California weighs farmwork in wildfire areas

As California braces for another brutal fire season, farming communities across the state are weighing what it will take to save their harvests — and who, exactly, should bear the brunt of the risks. In places like Sonoma County, those risks are increasingly shouldered by low-wage immigrant farmworkers who pick grapes and milk cows inside the county’s evacuated areas during wildfires. Their work is facilitated by Sonoma’s “ag pass” program, which allows farmers to bring workers into areas that other residents have been told to flee.

“You’re working inside where the fire is, and the smoke is very intense,” said Margarita Garcia, who worked in the mandatory evacuation zone during the LNU Lightning Complex fires in the summer of 2020. “It can affect your health.”

On Monday night, Garcia stood on the bed of a pickup truck and told her story to a crowd of protesters in front of the Sonoma County Administration Building. “A lot of people have gone through this. And the truth is that who listens to us? Nobody,” she said.

After facing pushback and meeting with dozens of stakeholders, Sonoma County is reassessing its five-year-old ag pass program. The county Agricultural Commissioner’s office has proposed restricting the number of workers farmers can bring into an evacuation zone — something Sonoma does not currently do — and requiring pass holders to complete a fire safety training course. As Sonoma tweaks its program, many other counties across the state are considering implementing ag pass programs for the first time.

In Sonoma, workers like Garcia are pushing for a more ambitious policy shift. At Monday’s protest, members and supporters of the labor advocacy group North Bay Jobs With Justice urged Sonoma to fairly compensate the workers in evacuation zones and to offer them disaster insurance. If the county adopts their plan, activists say Sonoma would become the first California county to mandate hazard pay for farmworkers who work in restricted areas during climate disasters.

“We know the fires are coming more quickly,” said vineyard worker Anabel Garcia at the protest on Monday, recounting her own experience harvesting grapes inside an evacuation zone. “That’s why it’s time that we raise our voices now.”

Sonoma County launched its ag pass program under literal fire in 2017, when the Tubbs Fire leveled a neighborhood in the city of Santa Rosa, killed 22 people, and encroached on vineyards and farms throughout the county. In the years since, mass evacuations and deadly wildfires have become an annual event. The ag pass program is meant to stem industry losses, enabling farmers to save pinot noir grapes from smoke taint or to milk any cows they can’t evacuate.

A FERN/Reveal investigation last year found that the program also puts workers’ health and safety at risk. Workers claimed their employers weren’t providing them with protective gear, in violation of state law. And Sonoma doesn’t reliably collect information on the number of farmworkers working inside its evacuation zones, which means first responders don’t know how many workers are inside an evacuated area at any given time.

Sonoma and its neighbor, Napa County, are unusual in California. The region’s vineyard owners grow their wine grapes on rolling hillsides — which are more fire prone — and the grapes can be particularly vulnerable to smoke damage. Sonoma’s wine industry lost $300 million in revenue to 2020’s wildfire season alone. But every year, as an increasing number of record-breaking fires threaten agricultural communities across California, ag pass systems are gaining in popularity. About half of the state’s counties are developing a system or have already launched one, and a new state law formalized parts of these programs last year, though it applied only to the livestock industry.

While the passes are becoming more popular, several county officials said they don’t expect local farmers will use them to bring hundreds of workers into evacuated areas; in those counties, the most labor-intensive crops are grown in less-fire-prone places, and other types of agriculture are at greater risk. Fresno County, for example, is working on an ag pass program so cattle ranchers can evacuate livestock. Monterey County, where ash from the River Fire threatened farmworkers in 2020 as they harvested produce, is discussing a pass program, too; it would be limited to livestock producers, though it may eventually include vineyards.

In Ventura County, where California’s first ag pass program was launched and is primarily used to access avocados and other orchards, the pass program is on hold. The ag commissioner’s office and the sheriff’s department disagree on the best way to implement a program. “We needed a more coordinated way of giving access, when appropriate, so we’re not just blindly letting people go into hazardous areas,” said Patrick Maynard, director of Ventura’s office of emergency services.

That balance of access versus safety is top of mind in Sonoma, where county officials have formed an ad hoc committee to formalize and revise the program. Committee members are particularly focused on which types of farming operations should be eligible for an ag pass, as well as on worker safety and training, according to a Sonoma County spokesperson. Officials hope to draft a new policy by June, right when fire season is expected to start.

Workers and activists are hopeful that the county will reform the program, but they also see the ag pass system as a particularly stark example of a larger crisis: Agricultural work is getting more dangerous as climate change intensifies, and Sonoma would need to adopt more radical policies to make that work safer and more economically secure.

“Climate change is not something that is happening far off in the distance — it’s happening to all of us right now,” said Max Bell Alper, executive director of North Bay Jobs With Justice. “And those of us who are not farmworkers would be wise to listen to the people who are already facing some of the worst situations of climate change. What happens to farmworkers in Sonoma County is a preview for the rest of us.”

While worker advocates are pushing for more pay and protection, the wine industry is fighting back. Earlier this month, winegrowers launched Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees (SonomaWISE), which organized a protest of its own on Monday in the Sonoma County town of Windsor. “As farmers, our focus is simple: If the county determines it is not safe to access vineyards in an evacuation zone, we simply wait until the county verifies it to be safe,” the group says on its website. In the past, farmworkers have not been able to go into an evacuation zone without the permission of local authorities, but many workers allege the program still risks their health and safety. A SonomaWISE spokesman did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

Margarita Garcia not only worked through the 2020 LNU Lightning Complex fires. In 2017, she spent the first night of the Tubbs Fire picking grapes on the outskirts of Sonoma County. By the time she finished her shift, the firestorm had burned her house to the ground.

“There was nothing,” Garcia said. “No car, no clothes, no shoes — absolutely nothing.” She took some time off from work to deal with the fallout, which also meant she stopped getting paid. Rather than earning a salary, vineyard workers in Sonoma are paid a piece rate based on how many tons of grapes they pick. “We were forced to live under a bridge,” said Garcia. “That’s what it’s been like, to be me in my life.”

Today Garcia is one of the farmworker organizers in Sonoma who are urging the county to launch a disaster insurance program, which would compensate workers if the crops they rely on burn to the ground.

The labor advocacy group North Bay Jobs With Justice is also urging the county to give workers in evacuation zones hazard pay. Wildfire smoke can be up to 10 times more toxic than car exhaust and can damage the health of those exposed to it. “People are willing to do this work,” says executive director Alper, “but they need to be compensated fairly for the level of danger that they’re putting themselves in.”