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Sonoma County supervisors approve evacuation zone measure for farmers

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a measure that would establish a new program for farmers to access their property during a wildfire evacuation under limited circumstances, but notably would not allow them to harvest wine grapes.

The board voted unanimously for the new program that would allow commercial farm owners and operators, livestock producers and certain full-time employees to apply for an access verification card. They would have to complete a short fire and worker-safety training course as part of the process, and such instruction would have to be offered in the attendee’s requested language for Indigenous workers.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office would operate the program, and its deputies would decide at roadside checkpoints if it would be safe enough to allow permit holders to enter evacuation zones, but only during daylight hours.

They would be allowed to conduct certain activities, such as transporting or feeding livestock, irrigating crops or fueling emergency generators. Cannabis farmers would be included under the program.

Board Chairman James Gore noted that action needed to be taken as the grape harvest kicked off last month at the same time the region heads into the peak of wildfire season.

“We are, in fact, in harvest and in fire season and we need to be decisive, not divisive,” Gore said.

Prior to the vote, supervisors debated over particular aspects of the program, which pitted labor advocates, such as the North Bay Jobs with Justice labor group, against the local wine industry. The new program replaces the ad hoc system put in place during the 2017 North Bay wildfires that all sides noted was insufficient.

Supervisor Chris Coursey spoke about his concerns of better oversight for compliance under the program and the need for additional safeguards to monitor who enters and leaves an area. He specifically noted there needs to be a better system monitoring how complaints are handled and ensuring that tips are actually investigated.

Many of the 8,500 farmworkers in the county are undocumented and are fearful of law enforcement, labor advocates argue.

“My priority on working on this has been the safety of farmworkers in evacuation zones,” Coursey said. “I do have some questions and concerns about the oversight of this program.”

Supervisor Susan Gorin also expressed concern that there were no limits placed on the number of permits that an employer could obtain, which she feared could total as much as 100 workers. The permits would be valid for 42 months, which equals about three wildfire seasons.

“I want the passes to be limited to that essential personnel,” Gorin said.

County Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith said he didn’t anticipate a large number of passes being issued for each commercial farm given the limited scope of permitted activities.

“The parameters of activities that are allowed under this program are pretty restrictive, and don't include activities that would require that number of people for any one business to do that,” Smith said.

During the debate, Gore raised the issue of allowing harvesting done by machines that would only use a small crew of local workers to pick and remove the grapes. He noted that crop insurance only covers losses for the crop from about 40 to 60 cents on the dollar if vintners could not pick their grapes.

In addition, workers would not get paid during an evacuation. But Supervisor David Rabbitt was the only other board member who appeared sympathetic of Gore’s proposal.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said she agreed with the recommendation from county staff who drafted the proposal that it should primarily focus on public safety.

“If we start opening that door, I’m not sure how many folks are going to go through that door,” Hopkins said of efforts to expand permitted activities.

Gore indicated he would revisit the issue next year. “I feel like the harvest question has to come back,” he said.

Labor groups wanted the board to do more, such as requiring that farmworkers get hazard pay for working in dangerous zones and also be eligible for disaster insurance to recoup pay when they can’t work because of hazardous conditions.

The board rejected those demands.

But supervisors earlier this summer allocated $1 million to explore a new program to offer disaster insurance for farmworkers and another $2 million for a disaster fund to help those suffering financially as a result of wildfires.

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