As thousands of residents fled Sonoma County because of wildfires in 2020, hundreds of farmworkers stayed behind and continued working under a little-known government “ag pass” program, Teresa Cotsirilos reports in FERN’s latest story, produced in collaboration with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and the radio show World Affairs.
“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,” she writes in the text companion to the audio report. “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.”
Fueled by climate change and land mismanagement, Cotsirilos says 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.”
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.
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, Cotsirilos writes.