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Farmworkers Continue to Toil Even While Sonoma Burns

Though officials warn residents that the air is too toxic to breathe, laborers working in area fields have little protection

Kincade Fire Wineries Photo by Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

When the Kincade Fire was at its peak last week, area residents were evacuated to avoid both the flames and the dangerous air that resulted from the blaze. One group that stayed behind were farmworkers, several reports say, alleging that the workers were expected to toil in the fields even as regional air quality dropped.

According to ABC 7, around 300 farm workers sought makeshift shelter in Cloverdale’s Citrus Fairgrounds. Area volunteers rushed to assist the workers and their families, many of whom had fled via car, with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Ariel Kelly, the CEO of community-based recovery effort Corazón Healdsburg said that many of those farmworkers were also being bussed to and from the fields where they work, even as the fire burned nearby. Speaking with KALW last week, Kelly said that “we had about 90 farmworkers in our shelter leave on buses with their employer to go out and pick and then return back to the shelter.”

Kincade Fire Photo by Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Kelly told KALW that most “of the workers left without masks... We should be mandating that if they’re going to be working out in the fields in these type of conditions, at the very least, they’re wearing masks or respirators. At some threshold, they should not be out there working.”

It’s a situation that Kaiser Health News also reported on, illuminating the complexity of the situation: Being outside in these conditions is dangerous, sure, but for most of these workers, if they’re not out in the field, they don’t get paid. Speaking to 52-year-old grape picker Manuel Ortiz Sanchez, reporter Anna Maria Barry-Jester noted that Sanchez had been evacuated from his Healdsburg home, and that he “was nervous about what it would mean for his family.” A fieldworker in the area for over 20 years, he had already lost a day and a half of paid work, and paid work in future days remained uncertain.

Others, like the farmworkers that Kelly observed, headed out to the fields and vineyards regardless. Though regulations enacted in July of this year require employees to be pulled from outside work (and, again, not get paid) when the air quality index exceeds a rating of 150, as it did last week, field work nevertheless continued.

Kincade Fire Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

It’s worth noting, too, that masks aren’t considered a sufficient barrier for the particulate spread by fires. U.C.L.A. pulmonologist Dr. Kathryn Melamed tells The New York Times that masks should only be used as a last resort, and that the only way to be truly safe from the toxic air is to remain indoors.

It’s also hard to work in a mask, as anyone who donned one during last year’s fires quickly realized. The masks make it harder to inhale, are hot, and can be extremely uncomfortable. Construction workers who remained on the job in San Francisco as air quality suffered due to the Camp Fire often worked without masks, Wired reported at the time, with many saying that masks made their job so hard to do that “they had masks in their pockets, or had been offered them, but weren’t wearing them.”

Sonoma county supervisor James Gore confirmed to KHN that “authorities allowed some grape growers and their workers onto vineyards within the evacuation zone to try and save their crops,” and said that there’s no process in place to ensure workers are aware of the risks associated with continuing to work when air quality is bad. “People can work, but it must never be under duress,” Gore says, but “if somebody wants perfect health, they need to leave our community, because we have smoke here.”