Protections for Sonoma County workers near fire zones spotlighted after recent wildfires
In the aftermath of another year of devastating wildfires, Sonoma County residents again dealt with hardships of fleeing their homes and ensuring they were not breathing unhealthy, smoky air.
Furthermore, some local residents had little choice but continue to report to work during dangerous conditions because of the nature of their jobs.
Now, there’s a growing chorus of voices saying the state needs to do more to protect people working near fires in mandatory evacuation zones. A large number of them often are farmworkers who need to keep working to earn paychecks to put food on the table for their families and pay the rent.
“Workers are fearing for their safety and (are) being put between a rock and a hard place, when it comes to feeding their families,” said Omar Paz Jr., lead organizer for North Bay Jobs for Justice, and someone who has heard concerns directly from workers about their safety working near wildfires.
The issue took center stage when the Walbridge fire sparked in mid-August just as the county’s annual wine grape harvest kicked into high gear. Farmers still had to pick their grapes and tend to their animals. Local agriculture producers relied on county Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith to obtain permission to allow them and their workers to enter mandatory evacuation areas to get access to their farm properties — if given the go-ahead by law enforcement. During the Walbridge fire, ag producers made 450 applications to Smith’s office for such clearance and another 213 during the subsequent Glass fire, according to public records obtained by North Bay Jobs for Justice.
Smith said his role was to simply determine if applicants were legitimate commercial ag producers. He said a few applicants were denied, mentioning people who have beehives to make honey at home, then give it to family and friends.
In considering the farm property access requests, the ag commissioner does not take into account air quality levels or worker safety. The final decision to allow farmers onto their properties in fire zones is determined by law enforcement officers on the ground, Smith said.
A spokesman for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said no statistics were compiled regarding how many ag producers were stopped this year from entering fire evacuation zones because of worker safety issues.
The county’s ag property access system was developed during the 2017 wildfires. Even its creator, retired county Agriculture Commissioner Tony Lineager, acknowledged last year more needs to be done.
“The difficult part is coordinating all of the agencies involved to make sure everyone is on the same page. I believe that a statewide protocol must be developed that is portable and can be employed in any county for such disasters,” Lineager wrote in 2019.
While Lineager said Cal Fire and the California Highway Patrol have to be involved, the state’s oversight agency responsible for worker safety is Cal/OSHA. Labor analysts and activists said the absence of any enforcement action taken by the state agency on this front speaks volumes.
“This is only going to continue in the future, and there needs to be some type of safeguard in place that is evaluating these hazards and protecting the workers,” said Karin Umfrey, an attorney at Worksafe, an Oakland-based workplace safety advocacy group.
And concerns are not just in agricultural sector. During the 2019 Kincade fire, a similar situation occurred when grocery and restaurant workers reported to work in mandatory evacuation areas in Santa Rosa at the behest of their employers since their workplaces were not affected by PG&E power shut-offs.
Despite repeated requests for comment for this story, Cal/OSHA did not provide any information to The Press Democrat on what the agency is doing to protect laborers working in close proximity to wildfires. And the agency declined to make Director Doug Parker available for an interview.
“I know that Cal/OSHA has been out some (during the fires); I’m not sure how much,” said Anne Katten, pesticide and work safety project director for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
Fifth-generation grape grower Bret Munselle said he held off a daily harvest for about five days in Dry Creek Valley because he didn’t want to expose this workers to hazardous conditions during the Walbridge fire.
“Then it wasn’t active ... and the smoke had lifted and we were able to get in more comfortably,” Munselle said. “That was one we did have to wait on, but we were able to come back within a week.”
Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said he would like to see more state input on workplace safety in fire evacuation areas, noting the county’s local “ad-hoc program” doesn’t have clarity. It’s a statewide issue, he said, in need of the state agency’s attention.