Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to vote on compromise evacuation zone ordinance for farmers

After a contentious yearlong debate, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors this week is likely to approve an ordinance that would put in place new rules over who can access rural property during a wildfire evacuation.

The new regulations are a compromise between labor activists who advocated for a wide range of worker protections such as hazard and disaster pay for the estimated 8,500 farmworkers working in the county and the politically powerful wine industry, which argued for flexibility with public safety officials having the power to decide who is allowed to enter evacuation zones.

The ordinance was drawn up by county staff after a request by the board last month.

“When you deal with public policy, I am reminded time and time again that the Rolling Stones (song was) absolutely correct — that ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time, you just might find you get what you need,’” said Mike Martini, founder of Taft Street Winery in Sebastopol and the former mayor of Santa Rosa.

The proposal, which Sonoma County supervisors will consider during Tuesday’s board meeting, would create a program in which commercial farm owners and operators, livestock producers and certain full-time employees could apply for an access verification card. The card would allow them to enter evacuation zones under certain circumstances. The new program would replace an ad hoc system that had been in place since the 2017 North Bay wildfires that all sides and elected officials noted was inadequate.

Permit holders could only enter their property when deemed safe enough by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office at roadside checkpoints and only then during daylight hours. They also would have to go through a short fire and worker-safety training course as well.

The permit holders would be allowed to do certain activities, such as transporting or feeding livestock, irrigating crops or fueling emergency generators. But notably, they could not harvest any wine grapes within evacuation zones like they did in past years if the fires were far away from the property.

That’s a significant setback for the wine industry as vintners were allowed to harvest during the 2020 Walbridge Fire even as a large portion of Westside Road was cordoned off to most traffic.

Labor groups were pleased that they secured a formal policy that will prevent the vast majority of workers from entering evacuation zones where they could be placed in jeopardy from fire or smoke risk. But they came up short with their other demands for farmworkers to receive hazard pay for working in disastrous conditions and disaster insurance to recoup pay when they can’t work because of safety conditions.

As a further compromise, the board did allocate, as part of its current budget, $1 million for staff to design a new program that would offer a type of disaster insurance for farmworkers and another $2 million for a disaster fund to help those with immediate needs in the community as a result of wildfires.

“I would say the farmworkers have been bravely organizing on the front lines of wildfires for years. Now for the first time, the county is starting to listen to the workers and the county staff is recommending that supervisors create a formal policy on evacuation zones,” said Max Bell Alper, executive director for the North Bay Jobs with Justice, a labor group that has been pushing for such changes.

His group did have some concern with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office being placed in charge of administration because of distrust of local deputies from within large segments of the Latino community, especially as David Pelaez-Chavez, a 36-year-old farmworker, was shot and killed by a deputy last month.

“We would like to make sure that the formal policy has really good oversight,” Bell Alper said.

Despite their differences, there is relief among all of the various groups involved in the debate that the rules will be in place as the wine grape harvest, which started four weeks ago, ramps up heading into Labor Day. The work is occurring at the same time as the peak of wildfire season.

“It’s not everything we want, but it’s not bad. Most importantly, it’s going to be Aug. 30 when they hear this and we’re well into the harvest and fire season, so we need to move this forward and get this approved,” said John Segale, spokesperson for the wine industry supported group, Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees.

His group was pleased that the Sheriff’s Office was placed in charge of deciding when to allow access to fire zones.

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