Study: Sonoma County ‘ag pass’ endangers farmworker safety during wildfires; California counties consider own versions
While a new study throws up a red flag to the dangers of working close to wildfires, Santa Rosa farmworker Sandra De Leon is hoping drought doesn’t fuel Wine Country infernos this year.
That’s because the 38-year-old Santa Rosa resident worked when 2020 wildfires raged, as her employer was granted the ability to allow the grape harvest to continue under a government program called the “ag pass.”
The so-called interim “ag pass” program began in 2017, allowing those tending the fields, vineyards and livestock areas to gain access during fires and other natural disasters in Sonoma and Napa counties. Marin County is now starting to develop one, and California signed its own version into law last fall. The passes are seen as a stopgap measure for business operators, county workers and other crop tenders as a necessary means to gain access to property.
Most stakeholders admit these passes — also called “wildfire evacuation access” permits — are a work in progress. After canceling a tentative town hall on June 9, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors now plan to take up the issue July 19 at 8:45 a.m., a county spokesman said.
But a new report titled “Addressing Disparities in Sonoma County’s Agriculture Pass,” which was released by University of California, Irvine, on May 18, calls into question whether authorities issuing the permits are taking farmworker safety seriously enough.
When the Glass Fire that erupted in October 2020 encroached on the Pope Valley near the Silverado Trail where De Leon was working the harvest, the six-year farmworker “saw a red sky and ashes were falling.” At one point, De Leon — who has worked in Sonoma and Napa counties — said she felt “in danger,” as these blazes have grown so big they’ve caused work stoppages. She lost two months of pay during the Glass Fire and one month during the Tubbs Fire of 2017.
It's an untenable situation, accentuated by heavy smoke, concerned migrant advocates contend.
“It was really hard to breathe,” she said. The dilemma was two-fold. Wearing a mask in hot sun performing laborious tasks is difficult enough. But without it, the smoke burned her lungs, she explained.
That conclusion doesn’t surprise the UC Irvine researchers who are examining the situation.
“We learned that when they typically harvest at night, that’s when the wildfire smoke is concentrated and trapped low to the ground. It can be detrimental — especially in valleys where (the smoke) lingers,” said Rebecca Hornbrook, a consulting chemist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which is one of the funding partners of the study.
The report, which was also funded through the National Science Foundation and James Irvine Foundation in collaboration with North Bay Jobs With Justice, a migrant worker advocacy group, takes aim at the Sonoma County “ag pass.” North Bay Jobs with Justice was provided "subgrant funding" amounting to $15,000 from the James Irvine Foundation, then passed the $15,000 onto the UCI research through a grant the local advocacy group secured. The bulk of the funding amounting to $400,000 was given by the National Science Foundation and National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Researchers claim that almost 300 farmworkers (178 during the 67,484-acre Glass Fire and 115 during the deadly 363,220-acre LNU Lightning Complex that broke out two months before) were placed in harm’s way “within the fire perimeter.” The study also points out that some passes out of the 233 it reports were approved in Sonoma County fail to indicate how many workers are on the job. Sonoma County officials did not confirm that number of ag passes as of press time. Napa County has issued about 350 of the passes to companies this year.
“There’s a lot we don’t know yet about this long-term exposure,” said Michael Mendez, the study’s author and UC Irvine assistant professor in urban planning and public policy. “But there’s danger in the lack of oversight. The mandatory evacuation zones are considered hazardous to the general population. Asking these workers to enter into these areas is a strain on our first responders, and a gust of wind can change the direction of a fire.”
Mendez also believes more oversight of the program is needed. Sonoma County’s ag pass program is managed through an ad-hoc committee that includes two county supervisors, the agriculture commissioner and the Office of Emergency Services director.
Both Mendez and Max Bell Alper — the North Bay Jobs With Justice executive director — insist the program should be approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, so there’s more accountability.