California's forest fires have displaced more than 100,000 people and killed six and incinerated hundreds of homes, burning 991,000 acres over seven days. Some 560 wildfires were burning throughout the state on Saturday. What is unsettling the authorities is that the state had not even hit its peak wildfire season yet.
Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “ There’s no doubt that the risk of catastrophic wildfires is increasing dramatically because of climate change.”
The state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, said, “We simply haven’t seen anything like this in many, many years.”
Among those tackling the blazes are more than 1,300 prisoners who have been entrusted with the backbreaking work of clearing the fire-fueling vegetation in exchange for for only $2-5 a day, with an extra $1 a day when actively fighting a wildfire and reduced sentences. Although when she was California's general attorny Kamala Harris declined to free those prisoners, maintaining that their cheap labor was required.
“Their labor has been exploited for decades,” Romarilyn Ralston, who leads Project Rebound, a California State University program that supports formerly incarcerated students, recently told the Guardian. “People are injured, sometimes not fully prepared for fighting a wildland fire.”
Also at risk are the tens of thousands of farm-workers in the region. In Santa Cruz county, where Reyes picks strawberries, more than 20,000 people have been ordered to evacuate as the CZU August Lightning Complex fire grew to 40,000 acres. To the south lies Steinbeck country, the lush agricultural valley of the Central Coast that was the setting for the Grapes of Wrath. Here, the Carmel fire burns at 4,285 acres and 0% containment and the River fire at 33,653 acres and 7% containment. Farther south on the coast, about 10 miles from Big Sur, the Dolan fire grew to 6,700 acres. Together, these fires formed a heavy cloud of smoke that hung overhead as these workers picked their crops. State regulations require companies to provide workers with masks when the air quality reaches a certain threshold of very bad but that doesn’t always happen. The agriculture industry in general is very segmented, with layers of contracting and subcontracting. Safety protocols established by a company may not reach the ones tasked with hiring and overseeing the fieldworkers. Compounding this year’s smoke exposure is the coronavirus that affects the lungs.
“Because of who most farmworkers are, because of the culture that has developed in agriculture, there are a lot of workers who don’t receive the safety conditions that are on paper,” said Lucas Zucker, the policy and communications director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy. “There is also often a culture where if you speak up or say you don’t want to work, you may be seen as someone who is lazy or doesn’t want to work and you may not be called back for the next harvest.”
Almost 208,000 people across California work in the frontline essential agriculture industry from the lush almond tree orchards in the north to the cornfields of the Central Valley. Farm-workers already worked in conditions that were ripe for abuse and exploitation, worker rights organizations say. And with larger and more destructive wildfires arriving with each coming year in California, advocates have found it even more difficult to protect their rights.
“Whether it’s wildfire, pandemic, drought or storm, farm-workers are out in the field,” said Lucas Zucker. “It’s a largely immigrant workforce, many undocumented. Many are from indigenous communities from southern Mexico who face even greater barriers to accessing services and reporting labor abuses.”
Farm-workers in California are “particularly vulnerable”, he continued, because of the nature of the crops and the industry. “It’s extremely labor-intensive crops that require a lot of people out in the fields picking by hand. You’ll see thousands of workers out there picking strawberries, as opposed to Iowa, where there are cornfields where it’s mostly automated.”
Paid time off and sick days are not an option in this line of work. Who is going to pay the bills?