Fire survivors in immigrant community rely on broad aid effort
A year ago, the Robles family of Santa Rosa faced daunting odds of recovering the life they enjoyed prior to their narrow escape from the deadly October firestorm.
The family was left homeless by the Tubbs fire, which destroyed the Santa Rosa assisted living facility where Charlie Robles and his wife, Cristalyn, worked and lived. The first night of the deadly blaze, the couple fled to safety with their 7-year-old son and four of the facility’s residents.
Compounding the couple’s challenge was their immigration status, which limited their ability to access federal financial aid and other assistance. The family was among thousands across Wine Country whose lives on the margins were suddenly exposed by the flames, leaving them wary of seeking or accepting help from official sources.
Many managed to survive that time by cobbling together their own network of disaster relief. For the Robles family, that meant relying on aid from nonprofit agencies, private companies and the online fundraising site GoFundMe. A year later, the couple are once again employed and living at an assisted living facility in the city of Sonoma. Their son, now 8, attends a local school.
“I can’t believe in this country you get big help like this,” Charlie Robles, a 45-year-old native of the Philippines, said recently. “In my country, you help someone. But here, they rebuild your whole life again.”
Even as fires still raged across Wine Country last year, community organizers were launching fundraising campaigns to help undocumented residents, who are thought to number more than 38,000 in Sonoma County alone and overwhelmingly are Latino. One such initiative, UndocuFund, has dispensed millions of dollars in aid, underscoring the disaster’s scope and the unique collaboration of nongovernmental groups faced with unprecedented need.
Immigrant labor is a key driver of Sonoma County’s economy, including in construction and the wine, food and hospitality industries. Half of the region’s largest food processors rely on the immigrant workforce, according to a North Bay Jobs with Justice analysis.
The county’s agricultural sector employs between 4,000 and 6,000 permanent farmworkers each year — the majority of whom are Latino and undocumented, according to the Sonoma County Farmworker Healthy Survey.
The October fires destabilized that workforce. Flames destroyed rental housing, incinerated work sites and left many in this already vulnerable community bereft and adrift.
“There was so much fear,” recalled Christy Lubin, director of the Graton Day Labor Center.
Lubin said many undocumented residents avoided going to evacuation shelters because of law enforcement presence, or to provide information to the Federal Emergency Management Agency out of concern it would be shared with immigration agents. Legally, mixed-status families may apply for some federal disaster relief using one of their U.S.-born children’s Social Security numbers.
The need was palpable. Across Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, more than 6,200 homes were lost and 40 lives taken over the course of 23 days. In Sonoma County alone, more than 150 commercial properties were destroyed.
Organizations that assist undocumented residents were flooded with pleas for help. But in those early hours, community organizers were unsure what legally they could do.
“Initially, it was figuring out what all the different rules were and how we could distribute aid,” said UndocuFund coordinator Omar Medina.