Subscribe

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.

“The statistics in the study are very concerning. The ag passes did not even include all the workers,” Bell Alper said. “This is what we’ve been saying for a year now.”

The migrant worker advocate suggests that workers should be given the right to leave the jobsite “with pay” when they’re concerned about their safety. In addition, safety training should be presented in “their indigenous language,” Bell Alper added.

It works for the time being, supporters say

Since 2019, Sonoma County officials have invited 43 stakeholder groups to 18 meetings to hone the program, a spokesman said. A final policy proposal may be approved by the supervisors this summer.

The Business Journal reached out to the county numerous times, including Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith and Office of Emergency Services Manager Chris Godley, as three members of the ad hoc committee. None returned phone calls or emails.

In the meantime, SonomaWISE, a coalition spun out of trade group Sonoma County Winegrowers, remains confident in the work put into access program.

The study is riddled with flaws and assumptions, claims spokesman John Segale, whose Boise, Idaho-based pubic relations firm is under contract with the coalition.

“Because an application was required for every specific property, all businesses including construction, landscape, ranching and more submitted multiple applications covering all their properties in the event that access into the evacuation zone would be necessary,” he said. “To be very clear, just because an application was requested does not mean it was ever used.”

Charlie Martin, who runs the Chalk Hill Ranch, swears by the ability to obtain an ag pass since he experienced the wrath of the Kincade Fire of 2019 up close and personal when it torched his land, including 500 vines. He was forced to evacuate from his homestead located two miles down a private road outside Healdsburg.

“I was an advocate (for it),” he said.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi contends the “ag pass” serves as a major benefit to property owners and farmers needing to get their livestock out of harm’s way.

“We have made great strides over the last few years,” she said, adding more than grape growers use it. “Nothing really prepares you for a wildfire, but there needs to be access. We need to get in there.”

California Assemblywoman Megan Dahle, R-Redding, is trying to bring access to property during disasters to a statewide level. She wrote Assembly Bill 1103, which was signed into law last October and went into effect in January. Next January, the California fire marshal is due to develop a plan to establish a program across the state.

Considering the peak of the fire year is bearing down now, Dahle’s chief of staff, Erik Brahms, said he thinks “some counties are not wanting to wait” for the curriculum to be released until next year.

Napa County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Klobas said his organization plans to develop his county’s training regimen. Plus, Klobas pointed out it takes more than an ag pass to get access, so getting one doesn’t guarantee access if the conditions are too dangerous.

“Simply because you have an ag pass doesn’t mean you have access to property,” he said. “Law enforcement has to give the OK and ask, ‘Is it safe enough to use the ag pass or is it not?’”

Marin County is also proceeding with caution as it starts to create its version of the pass program, according to county Agriculture Commissioner Stefan Parnay. He expects to have its ag pass by 2023.

“The last thing we want to do is to have a program that puts people in danger,” Parnay said.

This story has been updated to reflect the date and time the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors plans to discuss the topic as well as when Marin County intends to have its version.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

Show Comment

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette