Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety Manager, Heather Riden, Discusses Wildfires’ Effect on California Farmworkers

09.08.20

By Alejandra Borunda for National Geographic

During the 2018 Thomas Fires, which ripped across almost 500 square miles in the Santa Barbara area and caused unhealthy air quality for weeks, farmworkers stayed in the fields through the worst of the smoke—in many cases without respirators, hazard pay, information in their own language, or any recognition that they should be protected.

“They were rendered invisible,” says Michael Méndez, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, who wrote a recent study looking at how undocumented immigrants were ignored during that disaster. “But they shouldn’t have been—that community has been there for decades, doing critical work.”

In response, their advocates pushed for more comprehensive protections. Last July, the state created a regulation requiring outdoor workers to be provided with N95 masks if the air quality index rises above 151, the EPA’s cutoff for “unhealthy” air.

In late August the index hit that threshold in many of California’s agricultural regions, including Monterey. The county agricultural commissioner collected 100,000 N95s, which bosses were supposed to deliver to field workers—of whom there are an estimated 91,000 in the two main agricultural valleys of the county. But it took time for those masks to trickle out to the workers.

On the first day of the smoke, Villegas got a headache after a day working without an N95—with just her cloth mask and a cotton face covering she’d sewed from an old embroidered pillowcase, its bright flowers encircling her brow. On the second, her boss showed up with a box of N95s for the crew but said a single mask would have to last for four days. “Take it home and wash it,” Villegas recalls being advised. Everyone had laughed, knowing the masks wouldn’t hold up to water.

The following day, another boss showed up with enough masks for everyone to have one each day the smoke was bad.

“Our eyes were red and stinging, but we worked full days,” Villegas says.

A coworker of Salazar’s ended up in the hospital after smoke exposure irritated her lungs. Salazar’s own asthma flared up after a few days of exposure. Others report that they never recieved masks, or were told they’d have to pay for them.

“What we’re hearing from farmers is that they’ve never had to deal with this kind of smoke,” and certainly not so frequently, says Heather Riden, an agricultural researcher at the University of California, Davis. Some forward-thinking farmers are starting to think about what an even smokier future could entail, she says.

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